Derrick Bell's Legacy

The story of Harvard Law School's first tenured African-American professor is hardly black and white

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“I remember him sauntering up to the front, and not giving us a lecture, but engaging us in a conversation. And speaking the truth,” Obama said of Bell in his speech at the time.


The conversation that Bell started continues to play out at the Law School today.

The Law School faculty is significantly more diverse. In 1990, only five tenured professors were women and three tenured professors were black. In 2011, there were seven senior black professors, and 20 percent of all professors were women, compared with 12 percent in 1990. There were also three Asian senior faculty members, one senior Latino professor, and one senior Native American professor, presumed to be Elizabeth Warren. The first tenured black female professor was Lani Guinier ’71, who received tenure in 1998.

Growing a faculty takes decades, according to a Morris Ratner, a former student at the Law School who completed two years as a visiting professor. But a more diverse faculty translates to a more diverse learning experience, he added. “Faculty members’ life experience shape what they teach and how they teach, so we thought having a more diverse faculty would bring more diversity to the classroom,” he said.

He continued that being able to relate to faculty members is important for students.

“Back when I was in law school, if you were a gay student, there was no openly gay faculty member that you could identify with on that very basic level of identity,” said Ratner. “It was that much harder to walk into office hours.”


When Mack was a student, he said the Law School taught students how to “think like a lawyer”—in a very particular way.

“There was a sense in the ’80s that we were sorting good lawyers from bad lawyers, and that the mission of Harvard Law School was to teach—or perhaps impose—that on the student body,” Mack said.

Part of Bell’s departure was fueled by his belief that the scholarship produced by women and minorities was devalued by the Law School, which at the time opted for a prescribed, hierarchical conception of law and legal education.

But in the decades since Bell left, the faculty has diversified ideologically.

“More conservative faculty have been appointed in the last decade, and that’s a good thing,” said Charles J. Ogletree Jr., a professor at the Law School and director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice.

Mack said that these recent hires show that the Law School has become more inclusive.

“I think that we are now much more humble about [the Law School’s] ability to define the rest of the world,” he said.

But while the Law School is more diverse than it used to be, the faculty still does not reflect the make-up of the U.S.

“I think there’s a long way to go,” Mack said. “One simply has to look at the faculty members and count” to see that the picture is not yet complete.

—Staff writer Caroline M. McKay can be reached at


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