Law School Alumni Divided Over Activism on Campus
Alumni attitudes diverge on whether to continue donating in light of campus controversy
UPDATED: February 9, 2016, at 12:48 p.m.
Over the past several months, tensions have flared at Harvard Law School over the treatment of minorities on campus. An incident of vandalism investigated as a hate crime sparked outrage, and the school seal’s historic connection to slavery has become the center of heated discussion.
A wave of student protests at the Law School followed. On Nov. 19, Law School affiliates walked into Wasserstein Hall, a main thoroughfare on campus, to discover pieces of black tape placed over the portraits of black faculty members. The incident, which remains unresolved after police investigated it as a hate crime, prompted debate about race relations on campus; student activists continue to push for better treatment of minorities. The group Reclaim Harvard Law issued a series of demands to Law School Dean Martha L. Minow, calling on the school to create a critical race theory program, diversify its faculty, and change the school’s controversial seal—which bears the crest of a former slaveholding family.
These continued debates are not confined to the Law School’s campus. Alumni from across the country have closely followed recent developments, contacting students and penning articles. And as donors well-trained in the art of argument, Law School alumni remain vocal on issues affecting the school, including ongoing activism.
Through letters, emails, op-eds, and informal conversations, Law School alumni have weighed in on the November black tape incident and ensuing activism, expressing outrage at the taping itself and varying degrees of support for activists. However, alumni attitudes diverge on whether to continue donating in light of campus controversy.
In the months since student protests at the Law School crescendoed, alumni have reacted to campus debates, sending letters to student groups and emailing activists and administrators to voice their opinions. Minow has communicated with alumni about campus activism, writing in a Dec. 2 email to alumni that she “invite[s] and welcome[s]” alumni engagement in discussions of race.
The black tape incident in particular sparked strong condemnation from alumni. Leland S. Shelton, a third-year Law Student and president of the Black Law Students Association, said that after the incident, his group received dozens of calls and emails, as well as a letter signed by 11 black alumni who expressed support for black Law students and disgust at the vandalism.
“We saw the photographs of your professors, our friends and colleagues, defaced with black tape, a desecration in a shiny hallway, and we felt an old and familiar ache,” the alumni wrote in their November letter, days after the incident occurred.
David A. Hill—a signatory of the letter who graduated from the Law School in 1991—said in an interview that the black tape was “concerning” and “frankly, that someone would have the audacity to do that in 2015 was surprising.”
Mark A. Price ’98, the president of the Harvard Black Alumni Society, also contacted the Black Law Students Association to voice support for the group in the aftermath of the vandalism, Shelton said.
While alumni on the whole responded to the black tape incident with outrage, they remain divided over some current students’ calls for deeper, institutional change at the Law School. Specifically, alumni have articulated differing opinions toward the call to change the school’s seal, according to Alexander J. Clayborne, a member of Royall Must Fall, a student group leading that charge. Any decision on the status of the seal awaits recommendations from a committee Minow convened in the fall, slated to come out in March.
While some alumni have directly contacted student groups, others have taken a more public stance, penning letters to the editor in The Crimson and The Harvard Law Record that offer conflicting viewpoints on the seal.
Some other alumni, however, question the scope and pervasiveness of racism at the Law School. Prominent entertainment attorney Bertram H. Fields, who graduated in 1952, dismissed what activists have characterized as pervasive problems of diversity at the school, drawing what he considers a distinction between these allegations and overt acts of racism like the black tape incident.
“The entire subject of diversity is really a subject divorced from somebody putting black tape on someone’s portraits,” Fields said. “I don’t like to see people confuse one with the other. Nobody can rationally condone putting black tape on those portraits—that’s disgusting. On the other hand, diversity is not quite that easy.”
THE DONATION QUESTION
Some people are questioning how, if at all, student activism will affect the Law School’s fundraising.
The tide of diversity activism comes shortly after the public launch of the Law School’s capital campaign, and in light of racial turmoil on campus, some activists have called on alumni to stop donating. This plea has had little financial effect so far, according to Steven Oliveira, the Law School’s dean for development and alumni relations. But the idea has stirred debate.
That idea originated with third-year Law student Bianca S. Tylek. Tylek, a Latina student born to immigrant parents, became a public face of the campaign when she delivered an emotional speech to donors at the launch, relaying her personal story of overcoming hardship and urging them to support the Law School.
But a month later, after seeing black tape stuck across portraits of her black professors and what she considered insufficient response by administrators, Tylek penned an op-ed for The Boston Globe, asking alumni to withhold donations as a form of protest until administrators meet activists’ demands.
For Tylek, who is a member of Reclaim Harvard Law, communicating this opinion to alumni was both a moral obligation and a strategic move, since alumni fund much of the school’s operations.
In her article, Tylek encourages alumni to donate to affinity groups in lieu of the Law School itself. Shelton said some alumni have offered to donate to the Black Law Students Association, which does not currently have the structure in place to accept direct donations. Shelton said he has encouraged alumni to give to the Law School with the stipulation that funds go toward the group.
Some alumni support the focused approach. Hill said he is considering contributing to a targeted campaign led by other black alumni in the Law School class of 1991 for their 25th reunion. Funds raised would go toward supporting current and future black Law students.
More broadly, the op-ed’s reception was mixed. Tylek said she has received messages of support from students and younger alumni in particular, but some major donors have questioned her argument.
Some strongly condemned the black tape incident and urged students to continue combating racism, but they expressed support for administrators and did not feel compelled to stop donating.
Law School alumna Lynn A. Savarese, a self-described major donor and a former chair of the school’s Annual Fund, said that while she is “happy” to observe the recent activism, she will continue to support the school. Savarese attended the campaign launch and said she was puzzled by Tylek’s change of heart.
“I was there when she spoke,” Savarese said. “ I was among many who were really touched by what she had to say, and therefore very troubled and confused about what she had to say in the Boston Globe piece.”
Fields, who donated $5 million to endow a professorship at the school in 2014, echoed this sentiment.
“I don’t understand why donors should not donate to the Law School because some moron, some racist decided to put black tape on some portraits,” Fields said. “I don’t know why that is a reason people should not give to a place… that always stood up for values and understanding.”
Several major donors said they continued to support the school because they were loyal to Minow.
“I salute the students for caring enough to give the Law School hell,” Law School alumnus Jeffrey R. Toobin ’82, a legal analyst for CNN and a former Crimson sports editor, said. “But I’m still a loyal alum and an enthusiastic supporter of Martha Minow, and I don’t think those views are contradictory.”
Some alumni are more hesitant to financially support the school. Hill has long withheld donations as a form of protest, vowing when he was a student never to donate to the Law School as long as then-dean Robert C. Clark, whose stance on hiring female minority professors he had disagreed with, was still an affiliate.
Anisha S. Queen, a 2014 Law School graduate, said she feels conflicted over donations.
“It’s a catch-22,” she said. “On the one hand, it’s through those donations that I got the education and network that I did. But on the other hand, it’s possible you are giving to an institution that perpetuates racism.”
While Tylek’s op-ed has provoked discussion, it has not significantly affected the school’s capital campaign. Oliveira declined to disclose the most recent fundraising figures, but wrote in an email that the campaign is doing well.
“We haven't seen any particular correlation between student activism on diversity issues and the commitment of our alumni to supporting the important goals of the campaign. Certainly not a negative one,” he wrote. “My sense is that, if anything, just about everybody seems to understand that a successful campaign will only strengthen the Law School's diversity mission in all kinds of ways, especially through financial aid.”
Campaign co-chair Morgan Chu, who graduated from the Law School in 1976, declined to comment.
While it appears unlikely that alumni will stop donating, some leading donors agree with activists that current protests present an opportunity for donors to evaluate how the Law School is using their money.
“I don’t think it [the activism] should scare donors away,” Savarese said. “I think it should encourage them to examine more carefully the policies that currently exist at the school and engage in the debate.”
—Staff writer Claire E. Parker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ClaireParkerDC.
This article has been revised to reflect the following corrections:
CORRECTIONS: February 9, 2016
An earlier version of this article included a photo with a caption that incorrectly reported the date of a Law School student rally. An earlier version also misspelled the last name of Anisha S. Queen.
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