Is It Back to the 1980s at Harvard Law School?

Harvard Law School was a troubled institution when I was a student there in the 1980s. The faculty was bitterly divided between liberal Democrats and radicals, and the radicals tried to take over. Three decades later it is hard to exaggerate the craziness of that time—demonstrations and mass meetings that were ripples from the power struggle among the professors. For instance, the faculty considered taking class participation into account in second and third year classes. The idea was to enliven classes so that they were no longer like the morgues many resembled. But some students and professors protested that the scheme was a plot to mark radicals down. And one of the radical professors memorably got up on the steps of Langdell Law Library to orate about how the proposal showed what a “repressive place” HLS was.

News of what became known as the “crit wars” got out to the alumni, the President appointed a new Dean, Bob Clark, and HLS slowly ceased to resemble Beirut on the Charles. But not before substantial damage was done. Many faculty members became even less interested in teaching than usual.  The best teacher in my entire educational career, Paul Bator, decamped to Chicago. Student leftists were emboldened and got the Harvard Law Review, unlike other major law reviews, to embrace ethnic and racial preferences, replacing a century old tradition where selections were made based on merit alone.  But worst of all there was the dispiriting sense that even at the heart of a university, power rather than reason was the coin of the realm.

HLS again seems to be convulsed along a similar fault line. Students protesters have been occupying  a portion of a classroom building. A group shouted down Dean Martha Minow at a ceremony at Brandeis at which she was receiving an award. And it has just come out that some radical faculty members are seeking to exploit the protests to hire more radicals and politicize the first year curriculum. The craziness is back: One radical is quoted as saying that the HLS faculty is “ conservative”—there at place where 98 percent of those contributing gave to Democrats!

I do not know enough about the internal dynamics at HLS to be able to tell whether the threat is as great as the 1980s. On the positive side, the proportion of radical faculty members seems somewhat lower than then. On the negative side, the protesters are making full use of the diversity claims, and in my experience that slogan can be used at a university to cover a wide variety of bad causes that have little to do with any plausible concept of diversity. But sadly, the turbulence at HLS reflects more generally the bad political climate of our nation, where reason is losing power to identity politics of one kind or another.