A Case for the Courts

IN NOVEMBER 1990, an audacious group of law students filed suit against the Law School, charging that it discriminates against women and minorities in faculty hiring.

At the time, no one figured the students would get very far. After all, they weren't real lawyers and they were up against one of the most prestigious and powerful legal institutions in the country.

But the unusual case has worked its way to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, and the justices heard oral arguments in the case earlier this month.

The justices are currently considering whether the students have the legal standing to bring the discrimination suit against Harvard.

Their decision depends on whether the students have demonstrated that they suffer direct harm as a result of discrimination in faculty hiring.


The University argues that the students don't have the right to sue because they wouldn't be substantially hurt by discrimination in faculty hiring. According to the argument, only professors and rejected candidates have the standing to sue the school.

BUT IT doesn't take a Dershowitz to figure out that the Law School's secretive appointments process ensures that most scholars never find out that they are being considered for a faculty post, much less if they have been rejected for one. If they don't know that they've been denied a job, how can they file suit?

Even more disturbing is the University's convenient rejection of the value of diversity. Harvard has long glorified the benefits of diversity in its panel discussions, its admissions pamphlets and especially its press releases.

But in the courtroom, the University seems to have had a sudden change of heart. In this case, the University is basically saying that lack of faculty diversity does not significantly affect a student's education--an argument which implies that the advantages of diversity are trivial.

The truth is that the effects of the dearth of women and minority professors at the Law School are anything but trivial. It denies all students the benefits of learning from a faculty with a wide range of perspectives and knowledge. And the lack of role models for women and minority students perpetuates a stigma of inferiority.

IT IS NOT entirely clear whether the Law School's closed appointments process is discriminatory or whether the hiring criteria it uses are appropriate.

But it is clear that discriminatory faculty hiring practices would do serious harm to both professors and students.

Therefore, the court should allow the students to go forward with the case and grant them the subpoena rights needed to determine whether the Law School is really playing fair.

Otherwise, Harvard's commitment to diversity will be little more than a set of false promises in glossy admissions booklets.