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The Limit of Liberalism?

By Melanie R. Williams

AT DINNER last week, a friend of mine and I discussed the highly publicized refusal of Weld Professor of Law Derrick Bell to teach at Harvard until the Law School tenures a Black woman. My friend suggested that Bell's protest would detract from the scholarly achievement of any Black woman tenured in the near future. This friend--who supported the April class boycott for increased faculty diversity--suggested that even liberalism had a limit.

What he ignored was that the struggle to gain equal representation for women and minorities at the Law School will be squelched if students and faculty only stage "safe" protests. Bell's daring protest focused nationwide attention on the Law School's skeptical hiring practices. His recent decision to teach his courses without credit, however, undermines the boldness of his original position and lessens the urgency of earlier student protests.

STUDENT pressure on the administration, such as the April class boycott, has often proven effective at other universities. But Harvard has shown in the last five years precious little response to undergraduate complaints of lack of faculty diversity. It is no secret that student voices within these ivied walls frequently echo unheard. As a member of the faculty, Bell's refusal to teach validates student claims of unfair hiring practices.

His was a courageous and threatening move. Bell showed Cambridge and the world that the spirit and convictions of one man can make a difference. The threat that media attention might remove Harvard's thin veneer of multicultural correctness simply scares administrators silly.

By refusing to teach, Bell does not just challenge Harvard to find a Black woman. He demands that Harvard find a qualified Black woman, and has literally put his career on the line to prove such scholars exist.

Now, the University must seek these individuals. Now, we must share his confidence that a Black woman will withstand scrutiny from the academic community. There should be no doubt in anyone's mind that this as yet unidentified woman will be hired more because of her credentials than her color.

Those of us who presume to call ourselves liberals should recognize that any "first" is not going to be welcomed into the Harvard academic community with open arms. But isn't it more important that the door has been opened for someone else?

My friend also argued that six out of the last 12 tenure positions given out at the law school have been given to minorities or women. But should we let ourselves be lulled into a false sense of security by the fact that just six new minority or women scholars have joined the faculty? So now there are eight tenured out of about 60. By any standard, the situation is critical.

For this reason, Bell's recent decision to teach non-credit classes to students is disappointing. His decision to remain at the school he challenged and threatened can only mitigate the impact of his protest.

No one wants students to suffer by missing the opportunity to study with Bell. But for Bell to agree to teach again in a university that stands for truth and justice on one hand, while so blatantly furthering all that's prejudiced on the other, weakens the power of his original stance. Students may have to suffer briefly to improve the diversity of the Law Faculty rather than allowing Harvard to continue its subtle--yet effective--racist and sexist policies.

Bell's change in strategy does not greatly detract from his position as a leader and a visionary in the struggle to gain more women and minority faculty at the Law School. But it does unfortunately alleviate some of the pressure on the administration. His decision has sacrificed the future of many for the immediate needs of a few.

Melanie R. Williams '91 is associate editor of What Is To Be Done?, The Crimson's weekly magazine.

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