E Pluribus Unum: HLS Should Welcome Identity Groups

“The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience.” Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. could very well be talking about law school life in general, and not just judging. If for nothing else, the formative years of legal education and training in law school are crucial in shaping the way we will emerge as advocates, judges, teachers and policymakers. But those years in law school are not just about what we learn inside the classroom, but also what we experience outside of it. This is why all law schools, including Harvard Law School, make it a part of their mission to create a rich, vibrant and diverse student life which will complement its formal academic offerings.

Recently however, Student Government passed a bylaw which could possibly undermine this mission. According to an anonymous member of Student Government, a new bylaw states that: “Student government will consider fundamental the possibility for an organization to fit within the mission of another existing organization or office. For instance, Student Government has a default of not accepting applications for student organizations that are based on national, state or regional identity or degree status.” This bylaw appears to be intended to align with a Dean of Students regulation which reads: “In general, groups formed on the basis of a state or regional affiliation will not be granted student organization status. If you are interested in forming a state or regional group, please send an e-mail to the Dean of Students Office (dos@law), we may be able to assist with an event that celebrates a state or regional area that is not currently covered by our existing organizations.”

It is rather ironic that a law school, proudly touted by its former dean and now Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan as the New York City of law schools, is enforcing a rule contrary to the spirit of that characterization. This default position against identity-based groups blatantly curtails the freedom of students to associate and to express themselves in a rich and meaningful way. In addition, the lack of transparency and hearing involved in the adoption and implementation of these rules makes one wonder if being in a law school, where one supposedly learns about fairness and justice, makes any difference at all.

What is more disturbing however are the underlying fears behind these rules. Is it a fear of the creeping internationalization of the school? What makes the Georgia Club more acceptable than an Taiwanese Students Club? Or what makes an SJD students association more problematic than the Transfer Students Association? One common denominator here is the international component of these “troubling” groups. Are these signs of an incipient xenophobia at HLS? Identity groups, whether based on nationality, degree, ethnicity or religion, should be welcomed, rather than discouraged. For one, certain experiences are made only meaningful within the context of a community. There are good reasons why we encourage expressive associations in school such as the Muslim Law Students Association and the Federalist Society. All law students need to be exposed to a spectrum of ideas and social forces as part of their education. Moreover, it is not beyond logic to understand that a graduate student association would have different needs and aspirations than J.D. student groups or a transfer student group. Second, these groups are more than just the sum of their parts. These groups qua groups make the school a livelier and a more dynamic place to learn and experience new things.

This is not a call for a balkanization of the school. If the issue is about the scarcity of funds to be allocated to student groups, then the proper response is to institute stringent rules which ensure that groups are not idle and that they actually contribute something to student and intellectual life. The solution, in other words, is to hold all groups accountable to their stated mission and objectives, terminating their recognition should they fall short of particular standards, and not to arbitrarily prevent new groups from being created.

In the same way that the numerous ethnic enclaves enrich, rather than impoverish New York City, we should see identity groups in HLS in a similar manner. After all, everybody identifies themselves as Harvard Law students. HLS should celebrate that diversity rather than shun it.

Anna Su is an S.J.D. candidate.

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