© 2024 Michigan State University Board of Trustees
Public Media from Michigan State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Harvard Law School's Crest Could Fall Beneath A Wave Of Student Protest


Yesterday, the dean of Harvard Law School endorsed a recommendation to change the school's official shield because it contains the crest of Isaac Royall, a slave owner whose endowment of land helped establish the school. The recommendation came from a committee appointed by the dean, but it was also one of several demands from a student group calling itself Reclaim Harvard Law, and organization that was part of a wave of protest movements that developed on campuses across the country last fall. Members of the group who've been occupying a student center for weeks applaud the shield recommendation. But they also say it's not enough. For NPR's Code Switch team, Arun Rath reports.

ARUN RATH, BYLINE: The dozens of protesters who have occupied the student center since February haven't clashed with campus security or barricaded themselves inside, though there are some sleeping bags and chairs pushed together for the protesters camped out here. They hold discussion groups and invite guest speakers. On a recent night, you could hear Arab-American comedian Amer Zahr riffing on the census form.

AMER ZAHR: Then there's a box that says Asian. Now, Arabs - we're Asian. But we know they don't mean us, and they tell you that they don't mean us. They write a whole list of examples - Korean, Japanese, Filipino, Vietnamese, Chinese - which sounds like the greatest food court ever.


RATH: In addition to doing standup, Zahr is also a professor of law at the Detroit Mercy School, teaching a class in critical race theory. That's something members of Reclaim Harvard Law School, like Keaton Allen-Gessesse, want to hear in the classroom.

KEATON ALLEN-GESSESSE: We've been asking for critical race theorists to come here, to be a part of the faculty. And those calls have gone ignored, and so we've been able to bring some here.

RATH: Racism at Harvard Law School became a national headline last November when a vandal defaced the photographs of African-American professors, putting black tape over their faces. But the students in the Reclaim movement are most passionate about institutional changes, such as further diversifying the faculty. Student Cameron Clark tells a joke that's circulated among students of color after the tape incident.

CAMERON CLARK: They didn't need much black tape to cover up the faces of our black professors, you know?

RATH: Clark says that prior to the occupation, Reclaim had meetings with the dean of the law school, Martha Minnow, and Marcia Sells, the dean of students.

CLARK: And we went line by line on all of the different demands that we had. We were met with platitudes. We weren't really met with a definitive yes or no on any or all of them.

RATH: The detailed list of demands include changes to the curriculum and faculty, new committees and offices that address diversity and inclusion and making the school more affordable for disadvantaged students. Here is Dean Marcia Sells.

MARCIA SELLS: The reality is many of them are things that students have been talking about for a while, so we're not, you know, looking at it from the context of we have to respond to demand. But we are looking at here are the things we have been doing.

RATH: Dean Sells points to the school hiring a director for community engagement and equity, conducting a comprehensive study of the climate on campus, and strengthening diversity training, among other things. Reclaim has not been satisfied with the response so far. And last month, they occupied the student center. But a lot of students don't agree with the agenda of the Reclaim movement or their tactics. Sarah Gitlin is a third-year student and a self-described progressive who believes in racial justice. But she thinks Reclaim is going about it the wrong way.

SARAH GITLIN: Instead of working with the administration, Reclaim has been fighting them, has been creating a really antagonistic environment. And so I think that a lot of students who are uncomfortable with certain portions of Reclaim are genuinely afraid to speak out about it. And at a law school that's devoted to a marketplace of ideas, that's a real shame.

RATH: Right now no one sees an end in sight to the protest. Reclaim Harvard Law School says the occupation of the student center will continue until their demands are met. And Dean Sells says the administration has no intention of kicking them out. Arun Rath, NPR News, Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Beginning in October 2015, Arun Rath assumed a new role as a shared correspondent for NPR and Boston-based public broadcaster WGBH News. He is based in the WGBH newsroom and his time is divided between filing national stories for NPR and local stories for WGBH News.
Journalism at this station is made possible by donors who value local reporting. Donate today to keep stories like this one coming. It is thanks to your generosity that we can keep this content free and accessible for everyone. Thanks!