Administration responds to BLSA demands as students stage protest

News   /   March 26, 2003  / 


BY JONAS BLANK

Less than one week after the Black Law Students Association called on the Law School administration to take action against recent incidents of racial harassment, the administration has responded in force, meeting with BLSA representatives, referring at least one student to the Administrative Board, and considering a number of new policies to respond to racial incidents and improve the climate on campus. Meanwhile, BLSA members staged a silent protest Monday afternoon between Harkness Commons and Pound Hall that drew over 350 students and included speeches by Professor Charles Ogletree and Harvard University Professor Cornel West.

In an interview with the RECORD, Dean of the J.D. Program Todd Rakoff said, “I would say that it is clear that we have got a problem or set of problems to address. Some of these are substantive problems–what are the limits of community on one side and free speech on the other?–and some of them are process problems: How do we develop additional skills in the community for relating across faction lines? It’s not clear to me whether we have a situation very different from that which is present in many other parts of the society. But even if you say we’re only the same, we still ought to be better. Either way you look at it, we have something we need to be addressing.”

Deans and BLSA meet;new committee planned

Both Rakoff and Dean of the Faculty Robert Clark met with BLSA representatives Saturday, and are expected to meet with BLSA again sometime this week.

Clark told the RECORD that he was initially surprised that the public outcry over the incidents “boiled up” when it did. “By themselves, [the individual incidents] weren’t all that catastrophic,” he said. “There must be some sense that there’s a more general racist feeling around.”

Clark said he thought Saturday’s meeting had been very useful. “I understand the issues much better now having met with the students…. I haven’t had the experiences that everyone has had.”

“We came to no conclusions, but we did talk about the different demands that BLSA had and different ideas that the Deans had about addressing the current issues at the Law School,” said 2L Joshua Bloodworth, the incoming President of BLSA. “We definitely must see it as an improvement…. But meeting with the Deans–which is a very important step–is also just a first step in addressing the larger issues at the Law School. We also know that there might be a long struggle ahead.”

Clark said that he plans to form a committee dedicated to tackling racial problems. The new committee will consider a number of issues, including training sessions for incoming students and possibly faculty that will focus on improving general skills in racial dialogue. Clark added that the Law School’s Program on Negotiation is considering adding a class that would teach students how to have “difficult conversations.”

As for the creation of a racial harassment policy, Clark said it would likely not come soon. “That’s a rather major undertaking,” he said. Rakoff estimated that creating such a policy would require the same degree of difficulty as the creation of the Law School’s sexual harassment policy, which took “a long time.” Still, he added, the idea remains under consideration.

Punishment of students considered; professors avoid sanctions

BLSA has also demanded that action be taken against the students and faculty responsible for the recent incidents, which included the posting of outlines using racist epithets, an anonymous e-mail also using such epithets, an anti-Semitic flyer that copied the e-mail, and conduct by two professors which students found offensive.

Rakoff said the administration will likely not pursue action against either Professors David Rosenberg or Charles Nesson, who are named in BLSA’s demands, and has not yet located the creator of the flyer.

However, Rakoff said that 1L Matthias Scholl, who sent an anonymous e-mail to 1L Michelle Simpson that read, in part, “I have actually begun using the ‘nigger’ word more often than before the incident,” has been referred to the Administrative Board, which may discipline him. Both Deans stressed that the administration frowns upon the use of anonymous e-mail, which they think promotes disrespectful conduct.

“We have a policy that e-mails should not be anonymous,” Clark said. “It’s not just a formality.”

Rakoff said the administration is still considering action against 1L Kiwi Camara, whose outline using the racial epithet “nig” began the current controversy.

However, Rakoff said it was unlikely that either Professors David Rosenberg or Charles Nesson would be removed from the teaching of 1L courses, as BLSA has demanded.

“I told BLSA on Saturday that, while I was always interested in student opinion of professors, who is assigned to teach in the first year sections is an academic judgment that I didn’t think was something I would negotiate about,” he said.

Instead, Nesson chose to take action himself. Rakoff confirmed today that Nesson has withdrawn himself from the teaching of his 1L class for two weeks. Though he will sit in the class, Professor Mort Horwitz and Rakoff will do the teaching.

“He thinks this is what will contribute to the learning of his students,” said Rakoff of Nesson’s decision. He declined to speculate as to Nesson’s reasoning. Nesson could not be reached for comment.

Responding publicly for the first time, Rosenberg said in a letter printed in today’s RECORD that, “The Harvard Law School community should realize that for a faculty member to be strongly criticized — and even threatened with formal sanctions — for making critical remarks about a genre of scholarship in class strikes at the very heart of academic freedom and is to be deplored. This episode is likely to have a chilling effect on open and candid discussion at Harvard Law School.” He also criticized the RECORD’s coverage, which he said, “seriously misinterpreted remarks I made in my torts class.”

Although the controversy broke during Admitted Students’ Weekend — activities for which just ended Monday — Rakoff said he was not concerned about any additional or potential embarrassment to the Law School’s reputation, noting that Clark mentioned BLSA’s silent protest during his speech to admitted students Monday afternoon.

“I’m more concerned with the reality,” Rakoff said. “If we do the right things, the reputation will reflect what we do, and if we don’t do the right things, the reputation will reflect that.”

BLSA rallies students of all races as Ogletree, West speak

Both Clark and Rakoff — who appeared briefly at Monday’s protest — said they were proud of Monday’s display of community among HLS students.

“My own view is that silence is very impressive,” Rakoff said.

The protest, which began slightly before noon, boasted a solemn crowd of black-clad students of many races and nationalities. At its conclusion, BLSA representatives publicly repeated some of the demands from their letter in last week’s RECORD, while making an additional call for unity among all students on campus.

Several HLS faculty and administrators were on hand for portions of the protest, including Clark, Rakoff and Dean of Students Suzanne Richardson, as well as Professors Frank Michelman, Randall Kennedy, and Martha Minow.

Ogletree, who serves as the faculty adviser to BLSA and a number of other cultural groups, followed BLSA’s presentation of its demands with his own speech introducing West, who he called, “my dear brother and my dear friend.”

“This shows that you are on a courageous and correct path,” Ogletree said. He noted that HLS black faculty members had participated in a conference call Sunday night and, “The black faculty expressed unequivocal support. We are behind you, we are committed to you, and we will help make your voices heard.”

West, who also blasted University President Lawrence Summers on National Pub
lic Radio Monday as, “the Ariel Sharon of American higher education,” urged the assembled students that there can be “no turning back” on the issue of racial progress.

“There is great beauty in your presence, great power in your witness, and great eloquence in your silence,” he said. “Even here at Harvard Law School… you still have to deal with the same legacies of people outside these walls, and one of those legacies is the legacy of white supremacy.”

Two-L Joi Chaney, who helped to organize the protest, echoed some of West’s concerns to the RECORD. “Our biggest problem is with covert racism, because it reaches into our everyday life,” she said. Chaney described her vision of BLSA’s proposed Multicultural Affairs office as one that would, “research and investigate whether hate speech had been uttered, and would be able to suspend students or note their conduct on their transcripts.”

Several admitted students were on hand for the event, including Ogletree’s daughter, Rashida.

“This changes my attitude in a positive way, because it is wonderful that students came together from the entire community,” she said. In fact, admitted students who spoke to the RECORD seemed to have a positive take on the protest.

Lisa Willis, a black admitted student visiting for the weekend, said the recent problems would not affect her choice of law school. “If nothing was being done, I would be reluctant to come to Harvard. But this broad show of support strengthens my resolve to come here.”

Trying to move forward

Though the controversy shows no signs of dying down, both BLSA members and the administration expressed cautious optimism about the road to solutions.

“I think Harvard has a very unique opportunity, because they will see that just like in the larger society, there happen to be elements of racial harassment within the Harvard Law School community,” Bloodworth said. “If I were an admitted student, I would look at how the administration and the faculty handle this instance. Clearly, Harvard is the most influential place in academic teaching and the law. Now, the question is whether [the administration] will exercise their moral authority to set the example for other law schools.”

Clark also sounded a positive note. “I’m concerned about making this into a learning experience for everybody,” he said. “I’m most interested in doing things to improve the climate, rather than the regulatory side.”

Asked what he thought the administration could have done differently to respond to the recent incidents, Rakoff said, “When we finally figure out what the constructive things to do are, then I will wish I’d done them six months ago.”

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