The Strange Administration of Martha Minow

Last week a group of students and I from Reclaim HLS travelled to Brandeis University to stage a protest during an award ceremony for Dean Minow. She was receiving the Joseph B. and Toby Gittler Prize which is “presented annually to a person whose body of published work reflects scholarly excellence and makes a lasting contribution to racial, ethnic or religious relations.” With the love and support of the tireless activists of Ford Hall 2015, we called out the Dean’s hypocritical tendency to “talk justice, but do injustice.” Recently, reactions to this protest have expressed “sadness” and “confusion.” Our critics seem to think that we are unaware of Dean Minow’s scholarship and her contributions to the legal field in advancing the causes of gender and racial equality. Yet we did not protest in ignorance. Indeed, we protested precisely because we are intimately acquainted with her work.

Reclaim’s Debt to the Dean

Reclaim Harvard Law advocates for a wide range of changes to this institution. One of our demands is a change to legal pedagogy. The current law school pedagogy does not provide new lawyers with the tools they need to address systemic problems such as racism. As it happens, we are not the first people to make that observation. In a 2007 article co-authored with Professor Todd Rakoff, Dean Minow helped to make the case that the Langdellian case method was outdated and inadequate “Langdell’s case method fails in [getting students to ‘think like a lawyer’]. It fails because lawyers increasingly need to think in and across more settings, with more degrees of freedom, than appear in the universe established by appellate decisions and the traditional questions arising from them.”[1]

In addition to her critique of legal pedagogy, Dean Minow has often emphasized further contextualization of legal problems in order to achieve equality. In one article she and her co-author write, “Like others concerned with the failures of abstract, universal principles to resolve problems, we emphasize ‘context’ in order to expose how apparently neutral and universal rules in effect burden or exclude anyone who does not share the characteristics of privileged, white, Christian, able-bodied, heterosexual, adult men for whom those rules were actually written.”[2] Reclaim Harvard Law shares these concerns about “abstract, universal principles” and we share an emphasis on context. We seek to import contextualized learning into the classroom so that a more inclusive educational environment might be achieved.

If these last two points were not enough, Dean Minow is quoted on the back of the textbook used by Professor Mack in his Critical Race Theory survey course. She writes, “Exciting political and social analyses are coming out of law schools, and none is more incisive or more important than critical race theory.”[3] Reclaim Harvard Law also believes that critical race theory is important and that exciting political and social analyses may be found in law schools where critical race theorists may be found. We merely point to the fact that Harvard is not one of those law schools and demand a remedy.

The Strange Administration of Martha Minow

Knowing that we are familiar with Dean Minow’s work, and that the Dean agrees with us on these issues, the final question to be answered is why protest her? One good answer comes from Dean Minow. In a 1991 article, Breaking The Law: Lawyers and Clients in Struggles for Social Change Dean Minow analyzed the relationship between lawyers and clients who break the law in protest. She wrote “Working within existing legal rules makes it difficult to resist the patterns that our experiences as outsiders should lead us to protest.”[4] This same principle, applied to the protest last Thursday might be reframed thus: Working within existing social norms makes it difficult to resist the patterns that should lead us to protest. In other words, protest is not polite. It is not fun. It is not respectful. Protest must challenge social norms and resist convention in order to expose injustice. True protest is always an interruption.

Martin Luther King Jr., in his letter from a Birmingham Jail, wrote “[W]e who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.” By protesting at Dean Minow’s award ceremony, we merely brought to the surface the tension between Dean Minow’s administration and Dean Minow’s scholarship. They are at cross purposes. And these cross purposes are all the more jarring considering that there is no institution that more deeply influences the legal universe than Harvard Law School. If progressive change is to be made in the name of racial equality, a good place to start would be here, where Dean Minow is clothed with the prestige and power of administration. Unfortunately, thus far the Dean has merely offered committees, working groups, and repetitive “climate surveys.” These things sound nice, but they have all been tried before, and they do absolutely nothing to address the structural violence of Harvard Law School. Since it is beyond question that Dean Minow knows about these problems, it is entirely appropriate to ask why she has done nothing about it.

It is important to note that our activism is not about Dean Minow, but that which she represents – Harvard Law School. Martin Luther King Jr. tells us that “The nonviolent resister must often express his protest through noncooperation or boycotts, but he realizes that these are not ends themselves; they are merely means to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent. The end is redemption and reconciliation. The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community.”[5] I look forward to making Harvard Law School into a true community because my activism is informed by the deep love that I have for the people here, and that definitely includes the Dean. However, that same love imports the duty of standing up for myself and for the marginalized against racial injustice and I make no apologies for carrying it out.


[1] Todd D. Rakoff & Martha Minow, A Case for Another Case Method, 60 Vand. L. Rev. 597, 600 (2007).

[2] Martha Minow & Elizabeth V. Spelman, In Context, 63 S. Cal. L. Rev. 1597, 1601 (1990).

[3] Critical Race Theory (Kimberle Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller & Kendall Thomas eds., 1995).

[4] Martha Minow, Breaking The Law: Lawyers And Clients in The Struggle For Social Change, 52 U. Pitt. L. Rev. 723, 732 (1991).

[5]MARTIN LUTHER KING, PILGRIMAGE TO NONVIOLENCE, STRIDE TOWARD FREEDOM 90-107 (1958), reprinted in 379-396, esp. 391-396 (Staughton Lynd ed. 1966) as quoted in Minow, supra n4.

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