The event was meant to allow Law School affiliates to “listen generously to one another” after several weeks of Kavanaugh-related controversy roiled and divided campus and the nation, Law School Dean John F. Manning ’82 wrote in an email earlier this week announcing the gathering. But some students said the forum fell far short of that goal. Manning did not attend.
Students who participated in the forum, which was closed to members of the press, said attendees gathered in small groups in Wasserstein Hall to discuss their general feelings about Kavanaugh’s troubled confirmation process and its historical reverberations. The conversations kicked off at 3 p.m. and lasted until roughly 5 p.m.
Second-year Law student and forum attendee Sejal Singh, a member of the student advocacy group Pipeline Parity Project, said she “appreciated all the faculty” that took part. But she said the event was ultimately not “responsive to student concerns at all.”
Singh said she and others would have preferred to spend the afternoon directly speaking to administrators about how Harvard addressed and plans to address issues raised over the past few weeks. President Donald Trump nominated Kavanaugh to the nation’s highest court in July; his confirmation seemed all but certain until at least two women stepped forward to allege he had sexually assaulted them decades ago.
In the wake of the accusations and calls from some students and alumni for Kavanaugh’s resignation, the Law School announced Kavanaugh would not return to teach at Harvard in January 2019. But administrators appear to have taken no action to effect Kavanaugh’s departure — University President Lawrence S. Bacow later said Kavanaugh chose to leave of his own accord.
Administrators including Manning repeatedly refused to take a public stance on Kavanaugh. Manning’s New Haven counterpart, Dean of Yale Law School Heather K. Gerken, was comparatively outspoken. On Sept. 28, she joined the American Bar Association in calling for an investigation into the allegations against the nominee.
Thursday's forum at Harvard Law School centered around more than just Kavanaugh's confirmation, Singh said.
“I think that most of us were there to talk not about the confirmation but to talk about the issues it has raised for our community and our specific concerns about the ways that we are not all equal members of the Harvard Law community,” she said.
Law School Dean of Students Marcia L. Sells told attendees that Manning could not attend the forum Thursday because he was “stranded at an airport,” according to Singh. Singh said attendees raised their concerns to Sells instead.
“[Administrators] committed to making sure there is another event that Dean Manning will be present at to discuss our specific concerns about the Harvard community,” Singh said. “I’m really heartened by that.”
In Manning’s Monday email, the dean wrote that “additional programs will follow” the conversation Thursday.
Attendee and third-year Law and Business School student Amber A. James ’11 said she is looking forward to future programming and hopes to see Manning there. She added Thursday’s forum was not all she had hoped it would be.
“I didn’t think that there was anyone at the event who would have been satisfied if this was the only HLS community forum on this issue,” James said.
In an emailed statement Thursday evening, Sells emphasized the ongoing nature of these conversations — which, she said, are aimed at Law School affiliates only.
"The Dean has had many conversations with students over the past weeks and will have many more in the weeks to come," Sells wrote. "The Discussion Circles was an HLS event only and never for the press. We really wanted all parties to share as a community. It was for students, staff and faculty. Members of the HLS community did express their thoughts and concerns and we know there will be more discussions in the future."
When women began coming forward with allegations of sexual assault against Kavanaugh about three weeks ago, the Law School saw days of protest. Christine Blasey Ford — a Palo Alto-based psychology professor — was the first woman to speak up, telling the Washington Post that Kavanaugh tried to rape her at a party both attended while in high school. Ford repeated these allegations in vivid detail during a nationally televised hearing Sept. 27.
A second woman, Deborah Ramirez, later told the New Yorker that Kavanaugh had pushed his penis in her face at a party both attended while freshmen at Yale College.
Kavanaugh has repeatedly and strongly denied all of the allegations.
The Senate confirmed Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court Saturday in a close 50-48 vote Saturday and the new justice began hearing oral arguments this week.
—Staff writer Aidan F. Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @AidanRyanNH.