Activists Caution Admitted Law Students at Visiting Weekend

Prospective students who converged on the Law School’s campus last weekend found themselves in the midst of protests and a new financial justice campaign by activists.

About 240 students arrived at the Law School on Friday for Admitted Students Weekend, an annual event meant to showcase the school and persuade students to attend. This Admitted Students Weekend, however, fell at a particularly turbulent time for the school.

Students with the group Reclaim Harvard Law, who have been advocating for better treatment of minorities at the school since the fall, intensified their efforts. Meanwhile, a dispute between activists and opposing students over posters and free speech escalated publicly on Friday.

Members of Reclaim Harvard Law have been occupying the Caspersen Center Student Lounge—which they call “Belinda Hall”—since February. Admitted students sitting in the lounge Friday witnessed the climax of the week-long poster controversy, when activists confronted critic William H. Barlow as he mounted signs on the walls accusing them of censorship.

As the debate continued, activists used posters as a tactic to get the attention of admitted students with the aim of informing them about problems they perceive at the school. Reclaim Harvard Law member Bianca S. Tylek said activists posted 400 signs around the school, in addition to a large banner outside of the room where Harvard Law School Dean Martha L. Minow addressed admitted students. In accordance with an updated poster policy, all posters outside of the lounge were removed, but posters within the lounge remained.

Several admitted students in the lounge Friday expressed mixed feelings about the racial climate at the school. Paul Maneri said witnessing the activism has prompted him to consider whether racial problems at Harvard are worse than those at other schools, or whether they simply receive more attention.

Admitted student Katrina Doyle said she had not heard about activism at the school until she arrived on campus for the weekend. “I was pleasantly surprised when I walked into the student center and I saw all these posters with these rabble-rousing statements,” she said.

As part of their efforts to reach admitted students, activists also put up posters to launch their new financial justice campaign, “Fees Must Fall,” which is focused on lowering tuition for students and improving benefits for staff. The posters cited tuition figures before bold letters reading “Is it worth it?” Reclaim Harvard Law members also passed out fliers to admitted students during a Student Financial Services session.

“The Fees Must Fall campaign is a start of a conversation around financial justice that we believe that Harvard Law School should be engaging in,” Reclaim Harvard Law member Sam S. Koplewicz said. “It’s not just about fees; it’s also about wages for workers and healthcare for workers, and about how we invest our money. Those things cut across both financial discrepancies and racial discrepancies.”

Koplewicz said financial aid and the Low Income Protection Plan—a program that helps graduates who opt for careers in public service with loan repayment—are not enough to alleviate the financial burden that comes with attending the Law School. Activists are concerned that this burden deters disadvantaged students from attending in the first place, and propels students who do attend toward high-paying careers in corporate law.

Tuition for the 2016-2017 academic year will be $59,500, up from $57,200 this year. The school estimates total costs—including projections for room and board, books, and fees—to be $88,600 next year.

Jessica L. Soban, Assistant Dean and Chief Admissions Officer, wrote in an email that the school has never attempted to obscure any information about costs of attendance; rather, the Student Financial Services session was intended to provide clear information to prospective students so that they can each make an informed decision. Soban said that Harvard is one of the few Law Schools that offers 100 percent need-based aid, and that the Low Income Protection Plan has grown substantially over the past 10 years.

“While the amount of debt assumed by graduates at all law schools is high and continues to rise, incomes available to HLS graduates in the legal profession more than justify this investment over the course of a career,” Soban wrote.

Tylek said the decision to attend the Law School is an individual choice, and activists were not attempting to sway prospective students in either direction. In fact, Tylek speculated, witnessing Reclaim Harvard Law in action might make students look favorably on the school.

Doyle falls into this category. “If anything, seeing that there’s other students who notice those things and are doing something about it makes me want to go to Harvard versus another school,” Doyle said. “It shows me that there are people trying to change things.”

Activists said they wanted admitted students to leave at the end of the weekend with a glimpse of the issues current students are grappling with at the school. “I don’t think many of us are dissuading people from coming, but I do think people should know what they’re signing up for,” Tylek said.

—Staff writer Claire E. Parker can be reached at claire.parker@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @ClaireParkerDC.

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