Bell Keeps a Record of Principled Departures

Derrick A. Bell has cultivated a fair for the dramatic exit.

In 1990, he took an unpaid leave from Harvard, in protest over the Law School's refusal to consider a women of color whom he supported for a tenured position.

But Bell had resigned as Dean of the University of Oregon's Law School six years earlier, under similar circumstances. And he made the same threat at Harvard, ten years before that.

In fact, Bell even resigned his very first job, at the Justice Department, on a matter of principle.

As he said in an interview late last month, his career has been "one of movement."

Right from the start, Bell was different. As someone who had graduated from a regional law school, had not worked on his school's law review and had not clerked for a Supreme Court justice, his credentials, on paper, were not the sort sought after by the Law School. In 1964, and again in 1966, when Bell applied for teaching positions at Harvard, he was turned down.

After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., when Harvard law students began agitating for a minority faculty member, Bell was suddenly hired, the first minority to hold a tenured post at the Law School. He became a Harvard institution, serving as a role model to generations of law students.

On his return to Harvard in 1987 from Oregon, Bell became immediately mired in controversy. He staged a five-day sit-in at his office, protesting the school's refusal to offer tenure to members of the Critical Legal Studies movement, a group of radical scholars who feel that the legal system perpetuates the wrongs of the establishment.

Despite a continuing interest in hiring issues, Bell was never offered a position on the Appointments Committee. But he persistently goaded the Law School establishment, pushing for greater faculty diversity.

In 1990, frustrated over the lack of a tenured minority woman on the Law School's faculty, Bell announced that he would take leave until the situation was remedied.

That was three years ago. As of now, there's been no change.

And this year, Bell's rollercoaster relationship with Harvard finally came to an end because of a long-standing University policy which limits leaves of absence taken by tenured faculty members to two years. In 1992, Bell's time ran out.

A special request to President Neil L. Rudenstine to extend the leave by a year failed. Bell then petitioned the Harvard Corporation, which reaffirmed Rudenstine's decision.

Bell says today that he understands how difficult it would have been for the Corporation to overrule the recently appointed Rudenstine.

'When there is pressure, they move; when there are other considerations that are more pressing, they don't.'

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