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Regina Austin got more than she bargained for when she came to Harvard Law School as a visiting professor this year.
A lot more.
Normally, scholars look forward to visiting professorships because they offer a chance to study elsewhere and get exposure at another school.
But at Harvard this past year, Austin quickly found herself at the center of a nationally publicized controversy over minority faculty hiring--a controversy she did not in any way instigate. And needles to say, the young torts scholar from the University of Pennsylvania does not seem thrilled about it.
All year, student activists have been chanting "Regina Austin now, Regina Austin now," in the hopes that the Law School faculty would appoint Austin to a lifetime post, and make her Harvard's first tenured minority woman law professor.
Austin, however, has preferred to maintain a low profile. She has said she approves of the activists' goals, but has nonetheless remained detached from the actual protests, apparently in the hope that her name would not become too closely tied to the student demonstrations.
But it became difficult to remain anonymous after Weld Professor of Law Derrick A. Bell, one of the school's three tenured Black professors, announced he was taking a leave of absence until the school offered a lifetime post to a Black woman. Immediately, all eyes turned to Austin--the only Black female professor on campus.
Since then, Austin has remained especially quiet, politely but consistently turning down all requests for interviews. Her only public statement on the matter was an open letter to the Law School community, in which she attempted to distance herself from Bell and his demands.
"The campaign to procure for me an appointment to the Harvard Law faculty is not a cause I particularly want to be identified with," Austin wrote.
She went on to say, "any emphasis on my appointment trivializes the genuine concerns of the students and diverts attention from the real source of those concerns, the people who for all of their suffering cannot get the sort of attention Harvard Law students rather easily can."
Austin did not say directly how she felt about Bell's protest, or the position it had suddenly put her in, but Bell acknowledged in an interview that he had heard she was not happy with the situation.
Of course, those familiar with Austin say she has always shied away from the spotlight.
"She tends to keep to herself and is a little shy," says Richard Delgado, a professor of law at the University of Colorado Law School, and a former visiting professor at Penn. "She is also very bright and her scholarship is most original."
And Barry Spiegel, managing partner of the Philadelphia law firm Schnader, Harrison, Segal and Lewis, where Austin worked from 1974 to 1977, says "Her style was more on the quite side than the loud or aggressive side."
But if Austin's demeanor is reserved, Spiegal characterizes her scholarship as "intellectually aggressive." Austin's scholarship often challenges traditional legal norms and has provoked a fair share of controversy on its own.
Much of the current academic debate concerns Austin's latest work, "Sapphire Bound!" It is a case study of an unmarried pregnant Black woman who gets fired from her job as a schoolteacher because she is not deemed an adequate role model. According to Austin, such a judgment, made from the perspective of the white middle class, might not be an appropriate one.
Since that work is so untraditional and experimental, many scholars are cautions in evaluating her scholarship.
"I think the work she's branching out to now is a little tentative and hasn't found itself yet," says one law professor. "I think she would admit that."
Yet other legal experts say that such criticism is based upon a fundamental conservatism in the legal community, which keeps any experimentation with conventional legal methods--like Austin's work--from being accepted.
"I think that a lot of feminist work is dismissed because it doesn't come down with a fine, tight moral at the end," says Christina Whitman, a law professor at the University of Michigan. "A lot of law professors are more happy with more traditional scholarship."
Nonetheless, Austin's earlier work, both in torts and insurance law, has won more widespread praise form legal scholars nationwide.
"She has done pathbreaking work involving the question of discrimination in insurance law," says a law professor at New York University Law School.
Perhaps that is why so many people who know her wish she had not become the center of so much controversy.
"I think it's enormously unfortunate that the issue has come to focus so personally on Regina Austin," says Colin S. Diver, dean of the Penn Law School. "I think somebody should have compassion on her."
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