Derrick Bell's Legacy

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

Derrick Bell's Legacy
Wikimedia Commons

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

Twenty-two years after becoming Harvard Law School’s first tenured black professor, Derrick A. Bell Jr.’s hairline was receding and his patience wearing out. He wore round glasses and a gray suit, holding his notes in both hands and speaking into a half-dozen microphones.

Signs at the protest bobbed up and down, all handwritten. “Shame on HLS,” one of them read. “Is the United States 95 percent male and 91 percent white? Harvard Law School is,” read another.

At the time of this protest—one of many he held at the Law School between 1986 and 1991—there were five tenured female professors at the Law School, and three tenured black professors, all male.


So in 1991, Bell took a “leave of conscience.” He would return only when the 107 female black students were represented by a tenured faculty member.

But Bell was not just protesting the lack of a female black professors, according to Law School professor Kenneth Mack. Bell initiated a conversation about the value of diversity in the classroom—through diversity in legal scholarship. He was also one of the founders of critical race theory, a body of legal scholarship that examines the relationship between race and law.


Bell would never return to the Law School—the leave evolved into a dismissal. After two years of leave, a Harvard professor must return to teach in order to maintain tenure. But after two years, the Law School had not hired a female black professor. Since Bell did not return, he was fired.

In October of this year, Bell passed away at age 80. According to Mack, “he was one of the voices in the many conversations that collectively change the Law School.”

Though Bell would never return to Harvard, his actions two decades ago were part of a larger debate that would grip—and ultimately transform—the Law School, making it a community more inclusive of diverse theory and experience.


As Bell was having a crisis of conscience about teaching among an overwhelmingly white faculty, the overwhelmingly white faculty was having a crisis of its own. The ideological differences that sharply divided the faculty were making national headlines.

In an article that was published in 1993, GQ Magazine dubbed the Law School “Beirut-on-the-Charles,” describing a campus that “pitted faculty members against faculty members, faculty members against students,” and students “waging holy war on one another.” As a union of liberal and conservative students, the Harvard Law Review did not escape the tension that seemed to permeate the campus.

“I’ve worked at the Supreme Court; I’ve worked at the White House; I’ve been in Washington now for 20 years. And the bitterest politics I’ve ever seen—in terms of it getting personal and nasty—was on the Harvard Law Review,” said Bradford A. Benderson in a documentary produced by Frontline, “Dreams of Obama.”

These emotions spilled over into Bell’s protest.

“Professor Bell made people who disagreed with him angry,” Mack said. “There were professors and students who were very caustic.”

Benderson, along with Mack, was an editor of the Law Review when Barack Obama was the president of the publication. Obama spoke at one of Bell’s protests, alluding to the kind of compassionate pedagogy that set Bell apart at the Law School. A young Obama, wearing a blue button-down shirt and khaki pants, spoke with his hands in his pockets.

“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


Recommended Articles