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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained
In 1936, with Harvard’s tercentenary celebration approaching, former English professor Pierre de Chaignon la Rose, Class of 1895, set out to design seals for each of Harvard’s graduate schools.
For Harvard Law School, he drew a blue shield adorned with three sheaves of wheat—the family crest of Isaac Royall, Jr., an 18th-century slaveholder whose gift to Harvard had endowed the school’s first law professorship. The Harvard Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, then adopted La Rose’s design, more than a century after the Law School was founded.
After re-examining the seal’s history roughly 80 years later, a Law School committee will likely decide this week whether to recommend changing the school’s shield. After weeks of reviewing documents detailing the seal’s origins and speaking to Law School affiliates, the committee—composed of students, faculty, staff, and alumni—will release its full report in March to the Corporation, which holds final decision-making authority.
Last fall, a wave of activism about race relations at the Law School drew attention to the seal’s connection to slavery, as members of the student group Royall Must Fall called for the seal’s removal. Student activists at universities across the globe have challenged historical symbols, prompting debate about whether the removal of such symbols constitutes erasing history.
“The report that we make to the Corporation will be very detailed,” Bruce H. Mann, chair of the committee reviewing the seal, said. “It will include what we know about Isaac Royall, it will include the origins of the shield, the circumstances in which it was adopted, because all of those really are relevant factors in what should be done with the shield going forward.”
In late November, Law School Dean Martha L. Minow created the committee and appointed Law professor and legal historian Mann as its chair. Minow also appointed faculty members Janet E. Halley, Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Annette Gordon-Reed, and Samuel Moyn, as well as alumni James E. Bowers and Robert J. Katz.
Additionally, a Law School staff council appointed staff members Darrick Northington and Yih-Hsien Shen to the committee in January, and the student government chose student members of the committee through a written application process. Mawuse H. Barker-Vormawor, one of the founding members of Royall Must Fall; Rena T. Karefa-Johnson, a member of Reclaim Harvard Law, another activist group calling for the seal’s removal; and Ann C.E. Rittgers are the students who serve on the committee.
Mann said the committee is different than others at the Law School because it consists of students, alumni, and staff in addition to faculty, who generally comprise the other school committees.
“The mere composition of the committee signals that this is something the Law School is trying to approach in as open and inclusive and transparent a way as possible,” Mann said.
Bianca S. Tylek, a Law School student activist, said that based on the committee members’ backgrounds, the group seems favorable to changing the seal. The committee includes activists and legal historians who study civil rights and race in America.
“I think we have a pretty good feeling about the shield changing,” Tylek said.
The committee has studied the seal for more than a month and held a series of community meetings to discuss changing the seal. But the committee has only met as a full group once, and Mann said members have not yet shared their personal views on the issue with the group. Committee members emphasized the importance of considering a variety of viewpoints and engaging different constituencies within the Law School.
“I think that it’s a useful process in the way that it allows for us to have a conversation that was missing when the crest was adopted,” Vormawor said.
The committee will meet this week to deliberate, and Mann said he hopes they will settle on a position during that meeting. Soon after making their decision, the group will prepare a report it will likely present to the Corporation in early March.
“I have every confidence that the Corporation will be very receptive to whatever we might recommend,” Mann said.
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