Minow Calls on Michigan Graduates to Combat Injustice

At a time when she faces immense pressure to address what some have alleged is racism at Harvard Law School, Dean Martha L. Minow challenged a crowd of about 900 graduating students from the University of Michigan on Sunday to stand up against injustice in their post-graduate lives.

Minow, who received her undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan in 1975, traveled to Ann Arbor, Mich., Sunday to speak at the university’s winter commencement ceremony. Minow gave her speech, which focused on activism, a month after a racially-charged incident occurred at the Law School involving the taping of black professors’ portraits, which officials are investigating as a hate crime. Student activists, in the meantime, have protested against what they characterize as the Law School’s inadequate treatment of minority students.

Martha L. Minow
Harvard Law School Dean Martha L. Minow, shown here during Celebration 60 in 2013, delivered a speech at University of Michigan's winter commencement on Sunday.

Minow began her address by congratulating students and thanking the University of Michigan for inviting her to speak before her former adviser and other colleagues. But her tone quickly became serious as she asked, “What does it take to stand up against what seems wrong—and when and how should we?”

Minow urged students not to be bystanders, or people who do not speak out or act against perceived injustices. Instead, Minow encouraged students to be “upstanders”—a term she said she first heard from Samantha Power, her former student and current U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Upstanders, Minow said, are people who take action against wrongdoing like bullying or racism, despite potential social or financial costs.

“We all know it is easier and more familiar to do nothing and say nothing,” Minow said. “We often fail to speak out simply out of fear. We fear for our own safety, our own reputation.”

Throughout her speech, Minow referenced historical instances of discrimination, including the South African apartheid and a 1957 incident in Little Rock, Ark. in which the Arkansas National Guard tried to prevent nine African-American students from entering a formerly segregated school.

Drawing an analogy to bullying in schools, Minow called on the audience to collectively confront injustice.

“Taking even seemingly small acts in one’s own school can build the culture that prevents violence, bullying, sexual assault, and racial microaggressions,” she said.

Minow has come face-to-face with student activism herself in the past month, after the taping incident in November sparked debate about broader issues of race and diversity at the Law School. Student activists at the school have continued to protest and criticized Minow for her response to their demands, which include instituting a race theory program at the Law School and removing the school’s controversial seal— the family crest of a former slave owning family. Minow has taken some steps to address these demands; in particular, she created a committee to reconsider the Law School’s seal.

The activism at the Law School is one of many student movements that have emerged on college campuses across the nation this fall, as student activists at universities including Yale, Princeton, and the University of Missouri have called on administrators to address racial tensions on their campuses. Earlier this month, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana said Harvard’s residential House Masters unanimously decided to change their title, which some students criticize as associated with slavery. In late November, a group of Latino students met with University President Drew G. Faust to present a series of demands aimed at better including students of color on campus.

Graduating University of Michigan student Thomas M. McBrien said Minow’s speech was timely and well received.

“I thought the emphasis on activism was a really important one given the current climate in our nation,” McBrien said. “It was a topical, powerful message, especially for recent graduates. It gave us something to think about.”

—Staff writer Claire E. Parker can be reached at claireparker@college.harvard.edu.


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