A Latino Professor at Harvard Law? ¡Si Se Puede!


The chant of change is all around us. For years, Latino (as used here, meaning men and women with ancestry from Spanish-speaking countries and residing permanently in the United States) students and alumni have lobbied for a Latino professor at Harvard Law School. They have longed for a professor who self-identifies as Latino, has first-hand knowledge of Latino life in the United States, and who openly supports the struggle for equality of the Latino community in this country. There are persons from all over the world who would self-identify or be identified by others with the ethnic Latino description.

But being Latino in the United States takes on a different meaning. It is about culture, ethnicity, life experiences, national origin, and self-identification. There is also the visual identification made by others based on the stereotypical “brown” Latino. The reality is that the “Latino label” in the United States includes persons of all races and many mixtures thereof.

Thanks to an ongoing dialogue over many years, the HLS administration and faculty should understand by now what Latino students and alumni mean by a Latino professor. I must admit that I was surprised not to find one at HLS. I just assumed that a law school with Harvard Law’s resources would have a few.

Traditionally, arguments in support of bringing diverse faculty to the law school center on the benefits for minority students of studying under professors with similar backgrounds. But today we also recognize that all students benefit from learning in an environment that includes ethnic, racial, and gender diversity in positions of power. For some students, their first experiences with individuals of racially or ethnically diverse backgrounds, working on an equal footing as peers, take place in the higher education setting. In the law school setting, when law students interact with minority faculty in positions of power and prestige they become comfortable interfacing with minorities in this framework. These experiences serve to familiarize students with–what should be an expectation–the fact that they will encounter minority lawyers at all levels of the profession including as senior associates, partners, judges, and high-ranking government officials. For minority students, these interactions help to form their own professional identities by confirming that all career tracks in the legal profession are truly open to them, not only in theory but also in practice.

This is undeniably a year of firsts in the United States. Either an African-American Harvard Law alumnus or a woman from Yale Law will win the Democratic primary and move one step closer to obtaining the top job in the federal government. HLS is in a position to contribute to this movement of firsts by finally appointing a Latino, not as a visiting professor or fellow, but as a full member of the law school faculty. The days of protests, strikes, sit-ins, course boycotts, overt faculty wars, and messages on chalkboards, as described in Luz Herrera’s article, “Challenging a Tradition of Exclusion: The History of an Unheard Story at Harvard Law School,” published in the fifth volume of the Harvard Latino Law Review, seem to be distant historical anecdotes. But it was those expressions of activism by law students that helped, in large part, to bring African-American faculty to the law school. In addition, visionaries like former HLS Professor Derrick Bell, an African-American, who were committed to the cause, made professional sacrifices to pressure Harvard Law to move forward rather than remain stuck in a status quo that excluded people of color and women. The efforts have continued, including, as reported in The Record on December 8, 2005, students raising the need for a Latino professor during a visit by Nelson Castillo, then-president of the Hispanic National Bar Association.

Law students have also published articles in The Record to continue the dialogue about the need for a Latino professor, i.e., an article by Hugo Torres on March 13, 2003, and an article by Jose Morales and Lauren Schreiber in the April 19, 2007 edition. More recently, on November 20, 2007, members of La Alianza, including myself, met with Dean Kagan to discuss, among other things, the current efforts to bring a Latino professor to HLS.

As I get ready to leave Cambridge, I am optimistic that 2008 will be the year when Harvard Law finally introduces a Latino professor to the HLS community and law schools across the United States and the world. The old excuse that there is no Latino talent in the United States, including HLS alumni, with the credentials to teach here, is clearly inapplicable and should be considered insulting, disingenuous, and out of touch with reality. If NYU and Stanford are capable of attracting Latino scholars to their faculty, why wouldn’t Dean Kagan and the HLS faculty be able to convince a Latino professor that he or she would be sincerely welcomed, respected, and included at Harvard Law?

As a leader in legal academia, HLS must not neglect its responsibility to send a signal to all law schools that diversity should not only be paid lip service, but that diversity must be promoted at all strata of the legal profession and society in general. To meet this goal, Harvard Law must recognize and act upon the need to appoint a Latino professor sooner rather than later. Under the leadership of Dean Kagan, HLS has managed to “poach” top faculty from fellow law schools. This proves that Dean Kagan is capable of making a historical appointment by bringing the first Latino professor(s) to Harvard Law. I am confident that she will get the job done. ¡Si se puede!

Maritza Reyes is an LLM.