Elizabeth Warren was little-known outside the small world of bankruptcy law in the late 1980s when she was thrust into the spotlight, sought out for interviews and speeches on her new book about families facing financial ruin.
Warren, who with her two co-authors had spent six years digging into court files on real-world cases, laid out a provocative argument that Americans were going broke at a faster rate due to predatory credit card companies — not, as many experts long argued, because of their own irresponsible spending.
“The debtors who go into bankruptcy are a surprisingly middle-class cross section of America,” Warren, then 41, said on ABC’s “World News Tonight” in 1991, previewing a message that was to define a remarkable political ascent including her current presidential run. “If they’re not you and me, they’re certainly our neighbors.”
Barely noticed at the time was a bitter dispute over the integrity of Warren’s work that shadowed her for years as she climbed the academic ladder, even briefly holding up a job offer for a coveted spot on the Harvard Law School faculty.
A scathing article by a Rutgers University bankruptcy scholar, Philip Shuchman, appearing in the school’s law review, accused Warren and her co-authors of engaging in “repeated instances of scientific misconduct,” making “extravagant and false claims” and adopting “high-level populist theorizing that bears no relation to their research.”
Warren and her co-authors strongly disputed the allegations. In the end, the case against them fell apart, as investigators from the National Science Foundation concluded that the dispute centered on “differences — albeit extreme differences — of opinion regarding the interpretation of data.”
But the episode is revealing as Warren builds a candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination that frequently cites her early bankruptcy work as central to her populist identity. Newly obtained information shows the bitterness of the exchanges with Shuchman, including frustration from him and dismissiveness from Warren and her co-authors.
It also foreshadowed a recurring dynamic in Warren’s career as professor, then politician: She introduced pioneering ideas that reshaped views of the middle class, drew criticism that she was overstating her findings to make ideological points, and seemed to relish punching back.
“My sense was that she has strong prior assumptions that colored in some ways how she saw the data,” said Robert K. Rasmussen, a bankruptcy professor at the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law. Rasmussen tangled publicly with Warren when he argued that a 2005 paper she co-authored lacked sufficient examples to justify its findings.
“The standards for academics are a touch higher than the standards for politicians,” Rasmussen said. “I think sometimes she gets more firm in her conclusions than I would looking at the same data.”
Similarly, Michelle J. White, now an economics professor at the University of California at San Diego, has criticized Warren over the years, saying her work fails to account for the idea that many people file for bankruptcy as a strategic choice, not out of economic necessity. “She’d write these books and she’d find support for her own views, regardless of what was there,” White said.
White recalled an encounter when Warren was visiting Michigan in 1985 and White, then a young economist also at Michigan, asked Warren to review a paper, hoping it would lead to a good relationship.
Instead, Warren delivered a blistering and biased critique, White said, about as long as the original 30-page paper. “I got back comments saying I should throw my paper in the trash and find something else to do,” White said, adding, “I think she was very committed to her view and nothing would change it.”
In an interview, Warren defended her findings. “The data are rock solid,” Warren said. “There’s just nothing else to say.”
Many of her critics, she said, have not gone into the real world to find out how bankruptcy affects families. “There are people, including academics, who just don’t want to hear those stories,” Warren said. “But the stories are real, and they needed to be told.”
Her interactions with ordinary Americans shaped her worldview. “After we talked to them — after we saw the records, the debts, how hard they tried — I came to see the world differently,” said Warren, who defeated incumbent Sen. Scott Brown (R) in 2012 to become the first woman to be elected U.S. senator from Massachusetts. She won reelection by a wide margin in 2018.
Warren — along with co-authors Jay Westbrook and Teresa Sullivan, who were University of Texas colleagues until Warren left for the University of Pennsylvania in 1987 — began their research at a time when bankruptcies were rising and experts believed many Americans were living beyond their means.
Credit card companies wanted Congress to tighten bankruptcy laws, requiring families to repay some of what they owed and making it harder to take advantage of Chapter 7, which allows debts to be erased.
Against that backdrop, the trio’s work was groundbreaking, said David Skeel , a law professor at Penn and author of a history of bankruptcy law. Setting aside the usual theoretical approach, they visited courthouses and pulled cases, scrutinizing the stories of specific individuals.
“It really was, for many people, the foundation of recent consumer bankruptcy scholarship,” Skeel said. “People hadn’t really stopped to see what was actually happening out there. Everyone was writing making assumptions about how consumers and creditors behaved.”
The resulting book, “As We Forgive Our Debtors,” made a splash in part because it was written in accessible prose instead of academic jargon. Debtors were living on the “ragged edge” of the financial system, the book declared, a phrase Warren now uses regularly on the campaign trail.
Its pro-consumer argument attracted an audience well beyond the insular circle of bankruptcy experts. The American Bar Association gave the book its Silver Gavel Award; the American Sociological Association named it a finalist for a “distinguished scholarly contribution” prize; and it sold well enough that a paperback edition was published 10 years later in 1999.
Before the research, Warren’s political leanings were unformed, colleagues say, and it has become central to the story Warren tells on the stump about why she’s running.
“None of us were big liberals; Liz was not,” Westbrook recalled. “She was probably the most conservative of the three. Here we are sitting and looking at these numbers and seeing that what the industry was saying was just false.”
Warren, who had a knack for speaking in sound bites even on complex topics, quickly emerged as an advocate for middle-class consumers.
“She has a take-no-prisoners approach,” Skeel said. “She was really ambitious. And she was scrappy then, just as she is now. . . . She was very aggressively on one side in a debate.”
As Warren’s prominence grew, Shuchman was becoming more skeptical about her work.
He had reviewed the grant for the National Science Foundation and recommended approval for the $110,000 grant to help finance the research. But in late 1989, shortly after the book came out, he started questioning its methodology and conclusions.
The co-authors dismissed his arguments as baseless. Westbrook attributed them to professional jealousy on the part of Shuchman, who died in 2004. Sullivan, who went on to lead the University of Virginia before retiring last year, declined to comment for this article.
Shuchman sent repeated letters to the authors seeking information about their use of data and asking for their raw numbers, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post through a public records request.
Warren at one point wrote Shuchman apologizing for not answering, but she suggested that his questions were not her priority. “Finding time during the Christmas holidays to sort all this out has not been easy,” she wrote. “In the six weeks since I received your first letter, I have had a number of pressing commitments.”
Shuchman’s frustrations mounted. “This is my third request to you and Elizabeth Warren,” he wrote to Westbrook in January 1990. “If you don’t intend answering my questions, it would be polite to let me know that.”
The authors ultimately did respond to many of Shuchman’s questions, but they declined to provide what he really wanted — raw data showing individual cases rather than anonymous summaries. They said, and the NSF later agreed, that they couldn’t release the information because it included sensitive financial records that by law must be expunged.
Shuchman, however, didn’t buy it. “This book contains so much exaggeration, so many questionable ploys and so many incorrect statements, that it would be well to check the accuracy of their raw data,” he wrote in his law review article.
The co-authors declined offers by the law review to submit a written response to Shuchman’s piece after it ran, and Warren now says she can’t remember why. “I’d hate to speculate,” she said. “Life moved on.”
Shuchman, who was a go-to expert on consumer bankruptcy before Warren’s work came out, hinted in his article at professional rivalry. “To claim that they began their work because so little was known and what was known was inadequate is not only untrue, but is also something of a put-down to other toilers in the field,” Shuchman wrote.
Warren says Shuchman’s criticism was a minor incident.
“The swirl [was] not really around Shuchman or his review,” she said. “The swirl was around, ‘What does this data mean?’ ” She added, “It not only upset the credit industry . . . but it also meant that middle-class families were in a lot of trouble.”
More broadly, Warren portrays the criticism that has been levied at her as carping by academics who may have looked at the numbers but never took the time to dig deeper.
“We talked to thousands of people through the years who told their stories of collapse,” she said. “They talked about their medical problems, their job losses, the terrible divorce, the death in the family, how they got cheated on mortgages and credit cards. Women talked about selling their wedding rings to try to pay their bills.”
Some other academics also felt that Shuchman’s attacks, at a minimum, went too far. Keith Lundin, a former bankruptcy judge, defended Warren’s book.
“Over the years I have read dozens, maybe hundreds of book reviews in law reviews,” Lundin wrote Shuchman in February 1991. “Never have I read a more intemperate and unprofessional review than the one you have written.” Lundin served on the education endowment of the National Conference of Bankruptcy Judges, which had helped fund Warren’s research.
Warren also fought back. She personally contacted the editor in chief of the Rutgers Law Review to ask for the article’s retraction, she confirmed. (Mark LoSacco, who was editor when Warren was seeking the retraction, declined to comment for this article.)
George Thomas, a Rutgers law professor, recalled that Warren also called Peter Simmons, then dean of Rutgers Law School, “more than once,” making it clear she was “extremely upset” by the review.
Simmons agreed with Warren, saying in an interview he thought Shuchman’s accusations were “bizarre.”
Given that, however, it’s not clear why the law review decided against retracting the Shuchman piece.
“The decision whether or not to run a retraction of a book review published in the Rutgers Law Review Fall 1990 edition was made 29 years ago, by people who are no longer at Rutgers Law,” said David Lopez, a co-dean of the law school. “It is impossible to know what factors went into that decision at this time.”
Shuchman felt personally attacked by Warren’s pushback, according to his family members, who describe her efforts as an orchestrated campaign to discredit him.
“What that woman tried to do to my father is just unthinkable,” his son Matthew Shuchman said.
Warren, through a spokeswoman, denied doing anything to target Shuchman or damage his reputation.
Meanwhile, “As We Forgive Our Debtors” elevated Warren’s career to a new level. Credit card companies did win many of the changes they wanted — something Warren acknowledges, with some frustration — but she succeeded in changing the conversation. Shortly after the book’s publication, Penn Law School made her the first woman to receive an endowed professorship there.
Colin Diver, then the law school’s dean, said the criticism of her book came up but didn’t change his views. “There were some conversations with Elizabeth about it,” he said, but he concluded that any allegations were unfounded.
Then, when Warren was up for a job at Harvard in 1993, the issue arose yet again.
Her scholarship was at the heart of a debate during a hiring meeting at the elite school, recalled Bruce Hay, a Harvard law professor who was there.
About 60 professors were seated in an auditorium-style classroom, without Warren present, debating whether to offer her a position, Hay recalled. “She was claiming that the data was on her side and in favor of a broad policy of debtor forgiveness,” he said, summarizing how her scholarship was presented at the meeting. “Some people found the data did not back her up.”
Toward the end of the roughly two-hour session, Warren’s detractors mentioned Shuchman’s allegations, explaining that he had accused her of overstating what her data showed and failing to give others enough credit for their work.
That was news to many in the room, so the professors postponed a vote.
Ultimately, the faculty members who examined Shuchman’s allegations found them unpersuasive. They reconvened and generally agreed that Warren was, at most, guilty of taking too much credit for originality, according to Hay.
“I remember other colleagues chiming in and saying, ‘Who among us has not claimed too much? We are not paid to be modest,’ ” Hay said.
Warren got the job.
Alice Crites contributed to this report.