Letter to the Editor: A response to my venerable teachers

On Monday a group of HLS Professors published a letter criticizing Reclaim Harvard Law’s recent protest of Dean Minow’s administration. I admit I was pleased and surprised to see a response from some HLS Faculty. To a great extent most Professors at the school have either been unfairly dismissive or entirely silent about our movement. I was also pleased to hear that the Professors are “proud of the activism, motivation and goals underlying Reclaim Harvard Law School”. Yet, although my surprise did not come without a degree of pleasure, this momentary gratification was all too quickly replaced by disappointment. I was expecting some discussion of the article I published a few weeks ago explaining our protest action. The article addresses many of the criticisms that the Professors raise, including the accusation that we “[fail] to acknowledge the enormous contributions that Dean Minow has made in the past – and continues to make today – in furtherance of the very issues of social justice that motivate Reclaim Harvard Law School’s efforts.” Indeed, in my article I titled an entire section “Reclaim’s Debt to the Dean” and pointed out how Reclaim and Dean Minow apparently have quite similar aims.

What exactly accounts for this unsupported assertion that Reclaim has ignored Dean Minow’s life’s work? I can think of a few reasons why the Professors would make this claim. One reason may be (Irony of Ironies!), that the Professors didn’t quite do enough research before they published their letter. It is also possible that, due to the logistical issues associated with gathering signatures and composing their letter, they simply couldn’t get their letter out before I published, or couldn’t modify it with my comments in mind. In either case, having myself been a beneficiary of their scholarly forgiveness on numerous occasions, I invite my esteemed teachers to review my article and publish more useful and responsive criticism whenever their understandably busy schedules may permit.

That being said, I do not think it would be entirely without utility to address a few other aspects of the Professor’s open letter. One unfortunate aspect of the letter is its unnecessary overtones of condescension. The Professors write, for example, “Dean Minow championed [social justice issues] long before they were popular – and long after people told her that being associated with such issues might jeopardize her professional career.” The implication here is that nowadays, protest is in vogue. As if the students have reclaimed Belinda Hall because it is “cool” to do so. Our Dean’s advocacy notwithstanding, Reclaim Harvard Law is not seeking entertainment or fame. We are here to effect change at this institution. Another example of this condescending overtone occurs when the Professors say “[It is very] important for those who support the ultimate goals of this movement to be thoughtful about the charges that they make, and the language with which they make them.” The implication here is that Reclaim Harvard Law has not been thoughtful. Yet we have been extremely thoughtful in educating ourselves, crafting our messaging, and picking our shots. For example, when we protested the Dean at Brandeis we were sure to use words from her own speech to do so. When I wrote my explanation of our actions I presented research of Dean Minow’s own scholarship to amplify the contrast between the words she had written and the actions taken at the law school. As I have said before we do not protest in ignorance.

Another, slightly more harmful aspect of the Professors’ letter is one to which my colleague Isaac Cameron points. There is a distinct lack of evidence attached to each of the claims made in the letter. I do not dispute that the Dean has had a long and distinguished career of fighting for social justice issues. But I do take issue with their assertions about Reclaim. As there is little evidence against which the Professors’ claims may be evaluated, the letter amounts to a heap of conclusory assertions. Overall they paint a picture of us as reactionary and emotional rather than intentional and thoughtful. Combined with the condescending overtones that the letter imparts, these unsupported claims take advantage of prevailing narratives about protest movements for their persuasiveness rather than fact-based, rational argumentation. Moreover, their rhetorical position as Harvard Law Professors adds further weight to their assertions – whether those assertions are backed up by evidence or not. Insofar as the letter indulges in these tendencies; (1) to condescend and imply that Reclaim Harvard Law is reactionary and emotional; (2) to reference no actual evidence in advancing their assertions, and (3) to rely on their position as Professors to reinforce those assertions, the letter reads more as an expression of class solidarity with the Dean, rather than as a careful consideration and critique of our message.

I would conclude by reiterating my appreciation and pleasure at having received a response from some of the Professors on campus. Although we have received support from staff, students, and clinical faculty, with limited exceptions we have received a great deal of silence from other quarters. This open letter represents an exponentially greater response than that which we have received from the majority of Professors at Harvard Law School. I am also delighted that the signatory Professors take pride in our motivation and in our goals. Ultimately it is only by sharing the same ends that we can have a productive discussion and I hope that their business will not prevent my venerable teachers from offering another response.