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Law School Dispute

Blacks' Boycott Creates Press Frenzy

By Adam S. Cohen

Harvard events have a way of attracting media attention seemingly out of proportion to any standards of significance. When a few students at Eliot House took a fancy to dressing up for dinners last year, the national press was awash with the phenomenon complete with large glossy pictures, and contemplative columns reflecting on just what this meant for the future of our republic. More tongues may have clucked in national despair when Harvard spoke of tearing down its Ivy than when Reagan took a budget are to federal student loan programs.

Many Black students at Harvard Law School learned this lesson the hard way this summer when the national press, which has never considered the Law School's long standing maintenance of a virtually all white and all male faculty worthy of particular attention, suddenly had a field day with the methods the students used to try to drive their affirmative action message home. Before the summer was over, the Black law students found themselves labeled by the national media as "unwise," "rampant" with "banal ethnocentrism," "anti intellectual," and just plain "racist."

Almost as long as there have been minorities at the Law School, there have been minorities protesting the ethnic breakdown--or lack of breakdown--on the Law School faculty. The school boasts 58 white men, one Black man, and one white woman in its tenured positions. Until December of 1980, there were two Blacks tenured on the faculty, and when Prof. Derrick Bell resigned to take the deanship at Oregon's law school, minority students geared up immediately. They wanted to urge the Law School to act quickly to bring another minority who would at least maintain the old status quo, and they wanted to pressure the Law School to continue to offer the race and law course that Bell had taught. In part, because the students had been spectacularly unsuccessful in convincing the school simply to bring new minority faculty, they linked their demands, and asked not only that the course be continued, but that a minority instructor continue to teach it.

The Law School announced that the course on race, which had previously been a full-term course, would now be offered as a "minicourse" in the Law School's three-week January session. And it announced that two visiting professors would share the teaching load: J. LeVonne Chambers, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF), and Jack Greenberg, director-counsel of the LDF. Chambers is Black, and Greenberg is white.

The response of many minority Law School students was swift and angry. The Law School had not taken advantage of an opportunity to use the race course to bring in a tenure-track minority faculty member. Even though Chambers was an eminent Black attorney, he was of little use to the students' affirmative action plans, since he had made clear that he had no desire to seek permanent employment with Harvard. "This issue has been part and parcel of an ongoing struggle to enhance the 'minority' presence at HLS," Muhammad Kenyatta, president of the Harvard Black Law Students Association (BLSA) wrote to Chambers after the announcement, explaining why his group would urge a student boycott of the course. "The campaign for the course has been a stratagem, the broader goals of which include increasing the number of full-time, tenured Black and 'Third World' faculty members at the Law School," he added. Clearly neither Chambers nor Greenberg could help in this respect.

Had the students stopped here, the great legions of reporters and national pundits who love to draw "lessons," and prove trends by citing occurrences at Harvard, might have remained silent. But the angry law students went a step further--attacking Greenberg's ability, as a white person, to teach the course. Kenyatta wrote a letter to Chambers in mid-May, in which he outlined his group's perspective: "Shortly after learning of this proposed arrangement, the BLSA executive committee met and carefully considered the matter in light of several relevant factors. Paramount among these is BLSA's desire that Constitutional Law and Minority Issues be taught in its entirety by a minority professor." The Law School's Third World Coalition was perhaps more blatant. The group's open statement in late May called for a "Third World professor" to teach the course. Only such an instructor, the statement asserted, could "identify and empathize with the social, cultural, economic, and political experiences of the Third World community."

Suddenly, the national media stood up and took notice. As Thomas Stern, a white member of the steering committee of the liberal National Lawyer's Guild Law School chapter, who has worked closely with minority groups on this issue, put it. A segregated faculty at Harvard is not news. The real sort of sexy news is that Black students boycott a white professor." And it was just this "sexy" news story that spread across the nation. The Washington Post, which was the first major paper to break the story, presented the issue as a very clear-cut one of race. The lead of that story read, simply enough. "Two minority student groups at Harvard Law School are urging classmates to boycott a race discrimination course, to be taught by one of the country's leading civil rights lawyers, because the lawyer is white."

Phrased in this manner, the commentators who hold an inexplicable fascination for all events at Harvard, immediately came to Jack Greenberg's defense, and it was the alleged racism of the students--not the Law School faculty's racial balance--that got all of the attention. Greenberg in particular attracted this defense because of the almost unequalled regard he has in litigating important civil rights suits. The New York Times rushed to the defense of academic freedom which it perceived as under attack, editorializing: "Surely Harvard law students should be able to make up their own minds about a teacher on the basis of what he teaches." Black syndicated columnist Carl T. Rowan concluded of the episode. "Now we have black students in the exalted climes of Harvard declaring all whites guilty of something--because they are white." Harvard Government professor Martin Kilson, also Black, wrote a piece for the Washington Post in which he blasted the "Ethnic Arrogance" of the students and the "intellectual gibberish" they used in their own defense.

In the face of this onslaught, the minority students backed off, saying that they had never intended Greenberg's race to be an issue. Saying this argument was tangential, the students contended that they really objected only to the insensitivity they perceived on the part of the Law School administration, in their handling of the race course, and of minority hiring in general. "The fact that one of these visitors, Jack Greenberg, is white is simply not the animus behind our actions," BLSA executive committee member Donald Christopher Tyler wrote in a recent letter to The Crimson. A press release issued by the National Black American Law Students Association, BLSA's national body, issued after the press furor, also denies that students ever took real exception to Greenberg's race. "The fact that one of the two visiting lecturers for the boycotted course is a Black attorney should make it obvious that BLSA is not motivated by 'anti-white' sentiments, nor by a personal animosity toward Mr. Greenberg," it says.

When the issue had quieted down, almost all the parties in the conflict agreed that one of the most puzzling aspects of the affair was the extraordinary press it had attracted. Greenberg is shrugging aside most of the publicity, and still looks forward to a good turnout for the course. "One has to do the best one can and make whatever contributions one can," he says, in explaining his continuing commitment to the course. Administrators also seem to shy away from harping on the subject. "We're just surprised at how much attention the whole thing got," says Lance Liebman, associate dean of the Law School, who declined to discuss the minority students' statements about Greenberg.

The minority students, who suffered under a heavy attack, also seem surprised by the media reaction, but many are more willing to offer some concrete reasons.

Kenyatta, for one, blames Vorenberg for the tumult. The dean sent a letter out during the summer to all 2L's and 3L's, describing the boycott being planned by BLSA, and enclosed copies of a wide variety of views on the issues--including Kenyatta's, the Third World Coalition's. Greenberg's, and Vorenberg's own. But Kenyatta now questions the need for such a summer missive, suggesting that in part it was an attempt by Vorenberg to raise the issue at a time when minority students were least able to orchestrate a response. The letter "set the stage for the sensational charge of anti-white racism," Kenyatta says. In particular, Kenyatta points to the letter's implication that the students' main concern was Greenberg's race, Vorenberg's statement that "I believe that to boycott a course on racial discrimination, because part of it is taught by a white lawyer, is wrong in principle and works against, nor for, shared goals of racial and social justice."

Whether Vorenberg's letter fueled the journalistic fires or not, others believe it alone is not sufficient to account for the sort of media fascination the subject commanded--a media fascination that brought the story to headlines as far away as Honolulu, and placed Kenyatta and a supporter of Greenberg in debate on a recent edition of the Today Show. Stern attributes some of the story's popularity to the Law School administration's success in "framing" the issue for popular consumption. "The students didn't have time to structure a public relations approach as the administration did," he says. A primary goal of the administration, Stern asserts, was to portray a rift between white and black students. In fact, however, Stern says there has been "unprecedented" cooperation between BLSA and white students on campus. Over 500 law students, the large majority of whom are white, petitioned the Law School for a reinstatement of the law and racism course, for example.

Kenyatta also charges the press attention to a national media that is right now on the prowl for stories that will discredit the affirmative action attempts of minority groups. "Generally, in this country there is a mood that says that affirmative action is reverse racism," he says. "What I saw in the press is the same thing I see on T.V., when folks in Boston complain that the only problem in their lives is that Blacks are getting ahead."

Ironically, the students' protestations that they were not objecting to Greenberg on account of race left some of the students' strongest supporters defending in print a position that the students seem to have disavowed. Christopher Edley, a Black assistant professor at the Law School, argued in a piece in the Washington Post that race was indeed a relevant criterion for the teacher of this course, since "Race remains a useful proxy for a whole collection of experiences, aspirations and sensitivities." Even Professor Bell endorsed in print the students' "call for a teacher whose credentials include experiences in and with racism similar to those the students have already suffered." But by now, the students seemed to prefer not to speak to this issue at all.

Whatever mistakes the minority students may or may not have made in fighting their cause, many Black students find a cruel sense of irony in the selectivity with which the national media paid attention to their actions. As long as the issue was simply one of a "segregated faculty," the media did not consider the issue worthy of note, they say. At the height of this spring's dispute, for example, the Law School announced a list of 10 new appointments--including three new assistant professors and several visiting and adjunct positions. All of the new appointments were white males, perfectly mirroring the all-white and all-male Appointments Committee the Law School had established to do the choosing. Vorenberg, in a summer mailing about the Chambers-Greenberg course, weakened the students' case by using that unusual forum to announce that one Black lawyer had just accepted a tenure track position, and another was considering a similar offer. But the Law School today refuses to divulge the name of either alleged individual, and Assistant Dean for Academic Administration Stephen M. Bernardi admits that even the more likely of the two has not exactly made his acceptance official. "We couldn't sue him if he doesn't come," Bernardi says.

If nothing else, the summer seems to have been a chastening lesson for some of the minority students on the goldfish bowl that is Harvard University. Like it or not, how Harvard students dress, what they say, and what becomes of their ivy may at any minute become national headlines. And the fact that they continue to be taught by white males just might not. This fall, you can bet that minority groups at the Law School won't say a whole lot about Jack Greenberg being white. But you can also bet they won't stop talking about how white the rest of the Law School faculty continues to be.

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