Amid a sharp drop in African-American enrollees at Harvard Law School, a task force on diversity has released the results of a yearlong study, with recommendations that a group of students says come up short.
The number of black first-year law students at Harvard declined significantly in 2016—the year after racial tensions erupted very publicly on the law campus. Just 33 such students enrolled last fall, down from what would traditionally be 50 or more, according a new report by the law school’s Task Force on Academic Community and Student Engagement.
(Of Harvard’s 2016 first-year class, 44 percent of students were racial minorities, the task force found. That compares to 32 percent nationwide, according to the American Bar Association.)
The Harvard report, released June 29, said that the school can’t force the “acceptance and respect” for differing points of view and opinions on campus.
The report also said, “It can, however, teach those qualities, model them inside and outside the classroom, support all members of the community as they engage in inquiry and discussion, and, in the process, create an environment that includes everyone.”
Raising additional funds to help recruit diverse students; bolstering mentorship opportunities; encouraging diverse students to pursue law teaching careers; and incorporating more classroom discussion on inclusion are among the task force’s 10 recommendations.
The task force was created by former law Dean Martha Minow in August 2016 and has 11 members.
Four law students on the task force issued their own report, saying that the larger task force’s work was dominated by faculty members and is too general to bring about significant change. The official report does not fully capture the campus atmosphere when it comes to diversity and inclusion, they wrote.
“We are of the view that the problem is not articulated well enough,” reads an addendum to the official task force report written by the four student representatives. “Instead, the task force report resorts to generalities that are devoid of the concerns we heard from students, rendering the investigation piece utterly meaningless. While the recommendations are worthwhile tweaks, they are minimal in the face of the enormous task for which we were called to probe and mend.”
New law Dean John Manning said in a message posted to the school’s website this month that task force members expended “enormous time, energy and commitment” on the inquiry.
“I will begin in the days and weeks ahead to consult widely with members of this community about next steps,” Manning wrote. “I am delighted that we will have the opportunity to exchange ideas and to work together in a spirit of collegiality and mutual respect to make our school the best it can be.” Harvard officials declined to comment further about the study.
Harvard isn’t the first elite law school to take a close look at diversity and inclusion of late. A committee at Yale Law School tackled those issues and in 2016 issued a report with more than 60 recommendations pertaining to faculty and student diversity, mentoring and student support. That inquiry was co-chaired by the school’s new dean, Heather Gerken.
Minow’s creation of the school’s task force followed one of the most tumultuous years on the Harvard Law School campus in recent memory.
In November 2015, someone placed tape over the eyes of African-American law faculty in their official portraits. Investigators never identified the culprit. That act put a spotlight on the treatment of minority students and campus race relations, and several student initiatives emerged. One was Royall Must Fall, devoted to the removal of elements of the family crest of early donor and slaveholder Isaac Royall Jr. from the law school’s official seal.
A law school committee in March 2016 recommended doing away with the existing seal and starting anew, and the school agreed. (That committee was chaired by law professor Bruce Mann, who also led the latest task force.)
A group called Reclaim Harvard Law School also grew out of the black tape incident. Members of the group occupied a law school student lounge for months, calling for the inclusion of critical race theory in the law school curriculum, more diversity among law school faculty and staff, greater affordability, and the establishment of an Office of Diversity and Inclusion, among other demands.
The new report from the Task Force on Academic Community and Student Engagement credits Harvard Law with extensive efforts to attract minority students and faculty. It’s just one of three law schools in the country that offers financial aid solely on the basis of need, it notes, and just five of the 19 tenure or tenured-track faculty to joint the school since 2010 are white men.
“Although some might look at the faculty as a whole and still not see the diversity they desire, in a process of faculty hiring that is necessarily deliberate and incremental, the recent progress toward a more diverse faculty is significant,” the report reads.
Students interviewed by task force members said that they want more classroom discussion of social, racial and economic justice, though the report points to the school’s extensive course offerings and faculty-led reading groups covering those topics. However, the law school should investigate how to bolster student mentorship to better help them navigate the campus offerings, the task force found. (The report notes that the current course catalogue runs 457 pages.) The law school should also offer more support to the many campus affinity groups.
Additionally, the task force recommended that the school survey law students on their experience at the law school and convene a new committee of faculty and students to examine these issues at least three years.
In their response, the task force student members called for more interaction and integration between J.D. and LL.M students; the integration of critical race theory into the curriculum; and bolstering preventative mental health care programs and support, among other recommendations.
“As we reflect on 200 years of excellence in legal education, let not the inertia of a rigid status quo prevent us from imagining and reimagining a more perfect institution,” the students wrote.
Contact Karen Sloan at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @KarenSloanNLJ