Breaking The Mold: Jim Harper’s Path from Punk Rocker to Constitutional Law Scholar

This is the twelfth article in Bears Doing Big Things, a weekly column celebrating the stories of notable M-A alumni. Read last week’s article here.

“In high school, I was a strange mix of popular kid and alienated punk rocker. I was Senior Class President, I went to all the parties, and I was in a punk rock band. We had fun playing music on University Ave in Palo Alto,” said digital privacy and Constitutional law scholar Jim Harper ’89.

Despite being class president, Harper remembered that on his graduation day he saw a whole bunch of people he didn’t recognize. He explained, “There was a Portola Valley/Menlo Park community, and an East Palo Alto/East Menlo Park community. That kind of stuck in my mind—there was a lot more to the school than I knew about when I was going there. Some of the friends I’ve kept in touch with from M-A are from EPA, but not nearly the number that I wish I had. I played football sophomore year and there were some guys I sort of knew from there, but not well enough to be friends. That’s something I really regret.”

Harper’s advice to current M-A students:

“I didn’t get into the colleges I wanted to go to, so I took a gap year to work at an insurance agency in Oakland. Terrible job, terrible commute. I eventually decided I wanted to go to UCSB, mostly because I had friends there. I was a little lost, a little misdirected, and didn’t immediately soar to the highest heights. 

Similarly, when I finished law school, I didn’t get a job right away. I was a decent law student. I was in the top 30% of my class at Hastings, the UC law campus in San Francisco, and the editor-in-chief of the Constitutional Law Quarterly. Usually, the top half of the class would be picked up by law firms, but the economy was terrible at the time so jobs were scarce. I had to figure out what I wanted to do. I knew I was interested in public policy, so I moved to D.C. and started interning on Capitol Hill. 

That’s two major junctures where I didn’t just automatically succeed, which I think is important for the kids who maybe aren’t in that clique of top students to hear. You don’t have to be part of that group to have a fulfilling career and be successful in life. Take your time, find your focus, and figure out what you care about.

I think you’re better off if you have to work hard to pursue something than if it just falls into your lap. Post law school, I’ve had friends who immediately went down the law firm track, but haven’t been satisfied with their careers. One of my buddies checks in with me every once in a while, and he’s struggling. Everything looks great from the outside because he went from top school to top school to top job, but he’s looking around at his life like, ‘Meh, I don’t know if this is really what I want to be doing.’”

Harper now works at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank in Washington D.C.  He described his job as “knowing a lot, thinking a lot, talking a lot, and writing a lot.” On a daily basis, he studies public policy, writes about it, and speaks at conferences. He said, “I’m focused mostly on the metapolicy of effective democracy. I remember a few years ago, I was sitting at my desk writing and then I paused and looked out the window, thinking. And then I said to myself, ‘Wow, this is great, I’m getting paid just for thinking!’” Harper has worked on committees in both the Senate and House. He’s written amicus briefs for several Fourth Amendment cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, and published scholarly articles in a variety of law journals. Harper has also been published in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

Harper has two young children, ages four and six, with whom he loves to play in his spare time. He owns three houses: two in New Hampshire and one in Washington, DC. 

Harper enjoys projects that involve building. He explained, “A few years ago, I put up a simple fence at the D.C. house. I found myself walking home the long way so I could walk past the new back fence. Because I got a sense of achievement from it. When you work at a think tank, all you do is produce ideas. Not that much ever really changes. You don’t outright win any debates. You might feel good about a conversation, interview, or debate, but you never outright win. Often, you lose. I get a lot of pleasure out of building stuff because it feels like tangible achievement. I own two chainsaws.”

Disclaimer: Bears Doing Big Things is not meant to be a list ranking the most accomplished or famous M-A graduates on Earth. It is a collection of people with a wide range of expertise, opinions, and stages of life who were kindly willing to share their stories. All have wisdom, entertaining anecdotes, and book recommendations to share. There are 45,000+ additional accomplished M-A alums out there, so keep an eye out for them!

Caroline Pecore is a senior in her first year of journalism. Her column, "Bears Doing Big Things," runs every Monday. She enjoys meeting new people through journalism and writing about the M-A community. Outside of school, she spends most of her time rowing for Norcal Crew and also enjoys reading, drawing, and exploring the outdoors.

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