On Nov. 18, around 400 Harvard Law students piled into a ballroom for the student government’s annual charity Thanksgiving dinner, taking spots on the floor when seats ran out. Some had spent the day marching with students from Tufts and other local universities in a national day of activism organized by the Black Lives Matter movement, returning to the Law School to join peers for turkey and mashed potatoes.
Marcia L. Sells knew when she assumed the position of Law School Dean of Students in September that students had concerns about diversity and inclusion. But that Thanksgiving dinner seemed to her to be a hopeful sign of synergy among the student body.
“It was amazing, vibrant, diverse—JDs, LLMs, international students, black, white, Asian, Latino, everything in between—it was fabulous,” she said, reflecting on the day months later. “I thought, ‘Wow, we can work with this.’”
“And then,” Sells said, “November 19th happened.”
Law School students and faculty walked into Wasserstein Hall, a main campus thoroughfare, on the morning of Nov. 19 to discover pieces of black tape across the faces of portraits of black faculty members. That morning, Sells found herself at the center of a circle of impassioned Law students demanding answers. The contrast between that scene and the Thanksgiving dinner the night before was stark, Sells said.
“After something that was so great, and you have a high of that, and then to be hit by [the black tape]—it was just staggering,” she said. “And that began sadly to shape the whole rest of my year.”
The incident set off a wave of activism at the Law School that would spark months of escalating confrontation about issues of race and diversity.
The harmony Sells had observed gave way to tension, which reached a crescendo by mid-spring. Sells was tasked with balancing conflicting concerns of students, deciding with Law School Dean Martha L. Minow when to intervene as school administrators faced criticism from all sides.
The year challenged administrators, brought racial tensions to the fore, and subjected the Law School to national media scrutiny. Most of all, though, the year was marked by a rising tempo of divided voices—students from opposing sides, debating freedom of speech at the Law School.
“Those voices have been brought to the forefront by perhaps a polarizing—but I would call enlightening—year,” activist and third-year Law student Bianca S. Tylek said.
Race-related activism pervaded the Law School before Nov. 19; the group Royall Must Fall began in October what would become a months-long call for the school to discard its controversial seal—the coat of crests for the formerly slaveholding Royall family.
But the black tape incident was what shook campus, galvanizing activists and gradually fragmenting the student body.
By the first week of December, activists had coalesced into the group Reclaim Harvard Law and made forceful demands of administrators: change the seal, hire more minority faculty, and establish a critical race theory program, among others.
Opposition also materialized quickly. By Nov. 24, an unidentified group who said they were students had launched a blog called “Royall Asses,” labeling the black tape incident a hoax and targeting prominent activists. And William H. Barlow—who would become one of the activists’ most vocal opponents—publicly criticized their demands at a series of community meetings in the weeks following the incident.
Leland S. Shelton, a member of Reclaim Harvard Law and the outgoing president of the Black Law Students Association, was not surprised that activists encountered opposition over the course of the year.
“It’s a movement that’s trying to dismantle privilege at the Law School and change the curriculum,” he said. “There are a lot of people who have bought into the Law School and its pedagogy and they’re not going to want to let that go easily.”
Until the end of March, though, Barlow was one of just a handful of students who publicly spoke out against activism. Only the activists and administrators showed visible signs of discord, while most Law students quietly observed.
In February, members of Reclaim Harvard Law began occupying the school’s student lounge, which they called Belinda Hall after a former slave of the Royall family. Minow and Sells, meanwhile, announced a series of initiatives that month aimed at improving diversity and inclusion at the school, which included hiring a Director for Community Engagement and Equity, conducting a campus-wide climate survey, and launching a mentoring program.
And in early March, a committee Minow had appointed to reconsider the school’s seal recommended that the Harvard Corporation remove it. The Corporation quickly approved the recommendation, but activists continued to criticize administrators and push the school to address the rest of their demands.
The larger Law School student body was divided about the activism. A February poll, conducted by the Harvard Law Record, indicated that a majority of respondent supported changing the seal and making the school more financially accessible to disadvantaged students, while students were less unified on activists’ proposals to reform the school’s curriculum, create an Office for Diversity and Inclusion, and establish a critical race theory program.
A plurality of students in those cases, however, supported the proposals. Students across the school consistently characterize the school as a liberal environment—a political leaning that works in activists’ favor—and say that divisions between students, at least at first, were overblown.
“The silent majority supported [activists]. That was my feeling. The likes of Bill Barlow are generally very rare in our law school,” masters of law student Marlen Thaten said. “It went on like that for a long time—three or four months— and they slept in Belinda Hall and occupied the place, and I think most of us were okay with it and thought that the place was nicer for it.”
Soon, that sentiment changed. During the last week of March, Barlow mounted posters in the lounge accusing Reclaim Harvard Law of censorship, and activists swiftly removed them, resulting in fierce debate over the right to speech and space at the school.
The poster controversy proved to be a turning point in relations between activists and the rest of the Law School, as some students and administrators said they felt activists had crossed an ethical line.
Activists argued Barlow’s posters were offensive. Because they were occupying the lounge and said they had transformed it into a “safe space” for students, they claimed they had discretion over signs in the room and said they must approve all signage. Barlow accused the movement of censorship, complaining to administrators that activists were violating his right to free speech.
Until then, administrators had passively observed the occupation—which Minow called a “considered approach” in a statement—allowing activists to remain in the lounge and hold events in the space—many of which Sells attended.
“We did allow that to go on and engage, partly because it was also animating and creating conversations… it created great teaching moments,” Sells said. “But once it crossed the line where they were stopping other students from accessing the space, and even speech—that is a moment where it had to be that we are a law school, we allow for the exchange of ideas, even when it’s challenging and hard.”
Administrators intervened, declaring the lounge a de facto free speech zone open to all students, and threatening to take disciplinary action against anyone who took down posters in the space.
“I think [administrators] were stuck in a hard place between respecting free speech and angering students of Reclaim,” Shelton said. “It was a lose-lose situation for them.”
The controversy brought tensions to new heights, and students turned to the pages of The Harvard Law Record in a flurry of written commentary. The publication has also featured op-eds from faculty members, who were likewise divided on the issue.
Thaten—who said she supports Reclaim Harvard Law’s reform agenda—penned an op-ed in The Record arguing that activists’ actions had reached an unacceptable extreme. “What really tipped me over the edge was when they made a declaration that you can only hang up something in the lounge if their speech committee has approved it with a majority,” Thaten said. “That’s just deeply wrong and disturbing.”
She was met with fierce backlash from some activists, who accused her of “defending the already powerful.” Thaten said that response, however, was dwarfed by an outpouring of support from like-minded students, who thanked her and said they had been afraid to speak up.
“By attacking me and basically everyone who was supporting my view on free speech they had turned against what I would call the silent majority—the people who supported them before,” she said.
Sells said she heard from students who felt alienated by Reclaim Harvard Law’s tactics and what they perceived as its exclusionary rhetoric.
“The challenges are for students who I think politically agree with many of the ideas that students from Reclaim brought up but felt that the tactics weren’t the right approach,” Sells said. “Some students in Reclaim… were dismissive of those students who had a different viewpoint.”
The free speech debate took a turn when activists discovered a recording device in the lounge that had been surveilling their private conversations for days. The incident triggered a police investigation and further entrenched divisions between students, as activists considered the device an attempt by their opponents to intimidate them. An investigation into the device’s origin remains ongoing.
Sells considers it her job as Dean of Students to reconcile conflicting groups and what she calls each student’s “vision and shape” of the Law School.
“I hope we can keep saying to students, it is indeed your law school,” Sells said. “At the same time, it is your law school along with other students, who also are here, and it is their law school too. You have to accept that there are differences.”
Balancing students’ concerns and responding to incidents like the discovery of the recording device has proven difficult, and administrators have faced criticism from students across the ideological spectrum.
“They’re kind of put in a really tough spot,” said third-year Law student Kurt C. Krieger, who opposes Reclaim Harvard Law. “If they do anything that’s really going to make things worse, so their best bet is to try to weather the storm.”
Barlow characterized administrators’ response as reactive rather than proactive—an approach students he said mostly consists of emailed statements attempting to ease tensions.
“I think a lot of people think that the administrators don’t really have a handle on this,” Barlow said. “That’s kind of their role at this point—just to send out emails to the student body telling us to be nice to each other.”
Activists, meanwhile, complain of communicative delays and discrepancies in the degree of reaction to different students’ concerns, maintaining that the extent and pace of change at the school is insufficient.
Minow wrote in an emailed statement that administrators have proactively met with students and worked to recruit diverse faculty and staff. According to Sells, the school is also in the midst of the interview process for hiring a Director for Community Engagement and Equity.
Sells said she thinks activists’ sense of urgency stems partly from the transient nature of universities. “Students change and I think that is just the reality of academic institutions,” she said, noting that some changes, such as hiring processes, take significant time. “They see their three-year period as kind of finite and don’t recognize always the continuum.”
Sells said she enlisted the help of alumni to talk to activists over the course of the year to testify to the school’s progress over time and highlight the timeframe change requires.
Activists have taken steps of their own to overcome the perennial problem of institutional memory. They have documented their actions this year through online posts, videos, and photos in an effort to preserve the movement and ensure that administrators’ response to their calls for change does not end with the removal of the school’s seal.
“There’s not one reformer at Harvard Law who believed that changing the shield would solve racism at Harvard,” Tylek said. “It is critical that people don’t forget that, and that the institution doesn’t rely on this one gesture as a response to all the reform activism happening since 1965.”
The Law School is much calmer now. Third-year Law students are preparing for Commencement and activists have paused their protest efforts for the summer. But Reclaim members, dissenters, and administrators agree next year will likely see continued activism and opposition. While many prominent activists, as well as Barlow and Krieger, are graduating, they said that younger students are preparing to take their places.
“Criticism and debate are part of what it means to be a law school. This is neither the first nor last time we will see protests or counter-protests,” Minow wrote in the emailed statement. “On balance, even with disagreements over goals and tactics, and moments of less than ideal exchanges, this year generated some important and valuable conversations that will help us as we all work together to find ways to continue strengthening our community.”
The next wave of students will ride on the momentum of a year that Tylek said has “re-energized” the school, as students with a wide array of perspectives have found their voices.
“I think it can hardly be said that there’s any level of silence at the institution,” Tylek said. “In fact, it’s louder than it’s ever been.”
—Staff writer Claire E. Parker can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @ClaireParkerDC.