Harvard Law panel will review school emblem, dean says
By Evan Lips | November 30, 2015, 20:06 EST
CAMBRIDGE – Harvard Law School Dean Martha L. Minow wants a special committee of faculty and students to gather views on whether the school’s seal, which features imagery from the family crest of a slaveholder benefactor, should be changed.
Minow announced the panel’s members and its purpose in a statement posted to the school’s website.
The school shield features the coat of arms of the family of Isaac Royall, which consists of three sheaves of reaped wheat. Royall, the son of an Antiguan slave trader who moved to the Boston area in Colonial times, is recognized for having endowed the first law professorship at Harvard in 1779. In October, a handful of activist law students formed a movement dubbed “Royall Must Fall,” which called for stripping the seal of symbols taken from the Royall crest.
Minow has asked “distinguished historians” on Harvard’s faculty to “lead a process for soliciting the views and perspectives of all within our community – students, alumni, faculty and staff – on whether the Royall crest should be discarded from our shield.”
The Royall Must Fall movement took life at an Oct. 23 rally in which about 25 students protested use of the images. After generating some press coverage, their cause gained momentum on Nov. 19 when tape appeared across portraits of black faculty members. The Harvard University Police Department referred to the defacements as vandalism in its incident log but later characterized the incident as a suspected hate crime.
Harvard Law School Professor Randall L. Kennedy, writing in a Nov. 27 op-ed article for the New York Times, speculated on the possible identity of the perpetrator and offered multiple theories as to the possible motive.
“Perhaps the taping is meant to convey anti-black contempt or hatred for the African-American professors,” Kennedy wrote. “But maybe it was meant to protest the perceived marginalization of black professors, or was a hoax meant to look like a racial insult in order to provoke a crisis, or was a rebuke to those who have recently been taping over the law school’s seal, which memorializes a family of slaveholders from colonial times.”
The conclusion drawn by an editorial in the Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, called the defacement “the symbolic erasure of the law school’s black faculty” that was meant to delete their presence there.
Kennedy, whose portrait was one of those defaced, added that he felt more “puzzled” than hurt. He went on to warn of the “rhetoric of trauma” as a way to provoke authorities and cautioned reformers against “nurturing an inflated sense of victimization.”
On Monday, Kennedy said in an interview that he supports Minow’s decision to foster a dialogue centered around questions about whether the Royall imagery should remain on the law school’s seal.
“It seems like precisely the right posture for an institution of higher learning to take,” Kennedy said. “I think it’s a perfectly intelligent response.”
“Let’s learn. Let’s think. Lets debate.”
Recently, a website popped up that aims to prove that supporters of the Royall Must Fall movement perpetrated the defacement. The site has already garnered more than 23,000 visits since it went online last week. Its creators remain anonymous.
Harvard Law School graduate and conservative blogger John Hinderaker mentioned the site in a post, pointing out that not all of the black professors’ photos were defaced.
“The photo of Lani Guinier, the most radical of Harvard’s black law professors, was untouched,” Hinderaker observed.
Hinderaker also noted that “black protestors did exactly the same thing – placed tape over the portraits of black law professors – a year ago.”
Campus activist Derecka Purnell, however, told cable television’s MSNBC on Sunday that she’s convinced the act was inspired by racism. She also said she disagrees with many of the points Kennedy made in his Times article.
“The problem is that he’s reducing these events to black tape, he’s reducing these events to a school shield,” Purnell said. “But our fight has never been about that. Our fight has never been reducible to a Confederate flag, nor a water fountain, nor a street boundary, nor a lunch counter.”
“I find it almost laughable that we reduce these incidents to items.”