In the past week, Reclaim Harvard Law School protesters have occupied Wasserstein Lounge, drawing dozens of supporters and holding free meals, speaker talks, and group meetings.
However, the protesters, who are demanding changing to the Law School seal, hiring several critical race theory professors, and evaluating professors on the basis of implicit bias, among other things, have drawn criticism as well.
“It makes me feel uncomfortable,” 3L Kurt Krieger said. “One of the problems with this movement is that it silences a large group of people.”
“Many of the students who disagree with [Reclaim HLS] aren’t willing to speak up about it from fear of being called racist,” 2L James D’Cruz said, though “people at Harvard are already the most accepting of race that I’ve ever seen.”
Beyond students leveling charges of racism, some professors have also suggested that opponents of some of Reclaim’s goals are misguided. In a recent op-ed in the Record, 3L and Reclaim HLS member Bianca Tylek recounted a conversation with Professor Charles Fried, who suggested that defenders of the current HLS crest would most likely be found in “the Office of Mental Health.”
“If you look at Fried’s reaction, you’re not gonna get too many people who are gonna want to speak out on the other side,” said 3L Bill Barlow.
Despite Reclaim HLS’s claims that they are looking to create a more welcoming environment for all students, some students feel that the occupation, especially in their dealings with the administration, has created the opposite effect.
“When some students feel that the administration has not gone fast enough far enough, treating them like the enemy rather than as productive partners is counterproductive and poisons the atmosphere at the law school,” said 3L Sarah Gitlin.
Thus far, the administration has not taken steps to remove or otherwise address the occupation, choices that some students see as problematic.
“[It] shows that the school administration can be bullied by a small group of vocal activists,” 1L Josh Craddock said. “I can only imagine how the administration would respond if an ideologically conservative group on campus occupied the lounge and refused to leave.”
Reclaim HLS’s first demand is that the Royall family crest be removed from the Law School’s seal. However, Krieger argues that changing the seal is “ironic,” as it would ask students to “buy new t-shirts that will perpetuate slavery today [because of the slave labor going into t-shirt manufacture] in order to address something in the past.”
Barlow also took issue with Reclaim’s demands, in particular their demand that students evaluate professors on their implicit bias and racial contextualization of course material, saying that such changes would restrict, rather than enhance, campus dialogue.
“It’s a little McCarthy-esque to have students report on the implicit bias,” Barlow said. “In theory it sounds nice, but in practice it would lead to professors shying away from difficult topics.”
Similarly, Sussman and Craddock took issue with Reclaim HLS’s proposed mandatory 1L course on “racial justice and inequality in the law.” Craddock criticized the proposal as turning theory into dogma, while 1L Jake Sussman described it as “propaganda.”
“I don’t think Harvard should be advocating select ideology rather than presenting all sides and rational arguments and letting students reach their own conclusions,” Sussman said.
Barlow also recounted some previous incidents in which he felt that other students on campus felt silenced, suggesting that Reclaim HLS’s occupation of the Lounge is the latest in a series of conversation-chilling occurrences on campus. Last fall semester, Barlow started a petition to opposed to some of the demands of Reclaim HLS, which garnered just under 40 signatures.
“We had several people who signed as ‘anonymous’ or ‘very regretfully anonymous.’ The guy I was working with wanted to be anonymous,” Barlow said. “It was comical but sad.”
Sussman, a signatory to the petition, agreed that people with dissenting viewpoints often feel pressure to keep quiet.
“Those who don’t have a liberal ideology are often shunned or not heard,” Sussman said.
In addition, opponents criticize Reclaim HLS’s demand that Harvard bring on several professors specializing in critical race theory. In contrast, they say that Harvard’s reputation is to hire the best available candidates for tenure-track positions without regard to discipline.
“Establishing a professorship for a particular partisan viewpoint necessarily undermines academic freedom,” Craddock said.
Critical race theory and its use of narrative as an important source of scholarly insight was also a point of contention. Krieger criticized as exemplary a paper by University of Virginia law professor and critical race theorist Alex Johnson in which Johnson wrote, “It is perfectly acceptable … if that which is presented as the truth turns out not to be objectively true.”
Reclaim HLS member A.J. Clayborne defended critical race theory, noting that no less a figure than Plato also used stories to make philosophical and academically rigorous points.
“People assume critical race theory is some crazy leftist theory about how the U.S. is evil,” Clayborne said. “It’s just honest. It incorporates a holistic theory. It demonstrates how the law has oppressed marginalized people for centuries.”
However, some students were still skeptical.
“Instead of analysis, [critical race theory provides] narrative,” Craddock said. It strikes at the core of what we believe is the purpose of a legal education.”
“I tried to find somebody to say on concrete terms what critical race theory was,” Barlow said, “[But their answers were] so vague that I don’t even know how to respond to calls to have more critical race theory.”
Overall, the critics of Reclaim HLS seemed frustrated that the activists and the reforms they are pushing for seemed as inflexible as the administration and societal system the activists are opposing.
“I think the best preparation for a young lawyer is rational inquiry and free discussion, not doctrinaire dogmatism,” Craddock said.