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Process Matters

The HLS seal and the conversation on historic symbols

On Friday, the committee tasked with considering the future of Harvard Law School’s seal, which some have criticized for its connection to the slaveholding Royall family, recommended that the school change its emblem. While we disagree with the substance of this decision, we respect the process by which HLS reached it.

As the committee's report makes clear, this debate is far more nuanced than a simple case of right versus wrong or racial justice versus injustice. The committee explained that faculty, staff, students, and alumni of diverse races, genders, and ages fell on both sides of the issue. Indeed, one of America’s foremost scholars on slavery’s history dissented from the committee’s recommendations.

As we have previously opined, the Law School’s seal should have been used as an opportunity to reframe how we view Harvard’s historical associations with slavery, not as a means of erasing them. This would have served to remind the Harvard community about our collective responsibility to pursue racial justice each time we set eyes upon the controversial seal.

Such a rededication of the crest would build on the decades of progress that the seal has also come to represent. The committee report poignantly notes that many black HLS alumni see the seal as a marker of progress and a token to their efforts to help diversify the school. Indeed, because the connection between the crest and Isaac Royall was not publicly known until 2000, the seal stood for academic achievement and social progress for nearly 70 years. In this spirit, Law School Professor Annette Gordon-Reed suggested that the choice to change the seal is the “conservative” one.

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However, in light of the difficulty of this debate, with emotional distress on one side and the potential erasure of history on the other, it is gratifying that the Law School has approached this conversation in a forthright way.

The careful process undertaken by the Law School is a stark contrast to the one through which House Masters became Faculty Deans last month. The College was opaque, closed, and incommunicative in its approach; HLS has been transparent, open, and deeply reflective.

College administrators sought few outside opinions, provided no clear timeline, and even appeared to contradict spokespeople about the progress of discussions. Across campus, HLS solicited the input of all faculty, staff, students, and alumni via a massive email blast that inspired 1,000 responses. They followed this with two open community meetings. Instead of a single Dean ultimately picking a new title, a 12-person committee chosen from the Law School community was assembled. In contrast to the College’s unclear and unsound 600-word email justifying its decision, the Law School's 11-page committee report detailed the history, meaning, and import of the shift recommended. The report laid out both sides of the issue, clearly and thoughtfully explaining the reasoning underlying its recommendations.

While the changing of a school’s emblem perhaps carries more weight than the renaming of a title, the sharp difference between the two processes illustrates how Harvard should deal with sensitive issues like these two going forward. Rarely are there clear cut solutions to such situations. But whatever we decide, we should endeavor to approach the challenges of our past with nuance and depth.

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