The latest academic assault on intellectual probity comes to us from no less eminent an institution than the Harvard Law School. In April, Derrick Bell, Harvard’s first black law professor, announced that he was requesting an unpaid leave of absence until a black woman was given a tenured appointment to the law faculty.
Professor Bell, who had himself been appointed to the faculty in 1969 only after noisy student demands that the university hire a black law professor, explained that he felt he could no longer serve as a role model for both black men and women. Making much of the financial sacrifice he would suffer, he portrayed his decision as a noble gesture on behalf of freedom and equity. But for anyone concerned with academic standards, with the principle that university appointments and promotions be based on merit, not on skin color or ethnic privilege, Professor Bell’s protest appears as yet another example of the extent to which political imperatives are swamping the traditional ideals of intellectual achievement and scholarly distinction in the academy.
Initially at least, Harvard’s response to Professor Bell’s one-man affirmative-action campaign has been cautiously principled. Robert C. Clark, dean of the law school, was quoted in The New York Times as saying that “the law school faculty should make appointments based on the merits of each case, not because of protests. We do have high standards, and we aren’t going to compromise them.” Lest he go too far in offending Professor Bell’s many partisans, however, Dean Clark also noted that over the past ten years, almost half of all new faculty members at the law school had been women or minorities. A Harvard department chairman, who spoke on the condition that he remain anonymous, told the Times that “the notion of appointing someone under an ultimatum is anathema—it goes against academic freedom and what Harvard is all about.” No doubt. But what does it tell us about Harvard’s vaunted academic freedom that one of its more distinguished faculty members feels he must cloak his outrage in anonymity?
One Harvard law student, a black woman, charged that Dean Clark’s position was “highly insulting to blacks and points to the elitism of Harvard.” The “elitism of Harvard”? Well, yes, we suppose Harvard must still be considered an elite institution if anything is. That, of course, is precisely why this self-righteous woman wishes to study law there. And as for Dean Clark’s position being insulting to blacks: would she prefer that blacks and other minorities be recruited on a basis other than merit?
The real issue is summed up in Harvard’s venerable motto, Veritas. Is the Harvard law School on the side of truth? Or is it willing to sacrifice truth for political expediency? The problem is,” as another law student put it (a white male, incidentally), “you can’t tell the truth around here anymore without being accused of being a racist.”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 8 Number 10, on page 1
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