Harvard Law School on Thursday became the newest addition to the ever-growing list of collegiate campuses being plagued by racially-charged incidents. Black strips of tape were stuck on several portraits of Black professors at the university. Not all portraits with Black professors were defaced, but only Black professors were targeted. University authorities currently do not have any suspects.
The incident came just a day after students held a rally in support of the students at University of Missouri and Yale, who have spent the last several weeks battling racial tensions on their own respective campuses, holding protests and walkouts that resulted in the resignation of Mizzou’s president.
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The law school’s dean, Martha Minow, said in an email that campus authorities were investigating what happened as a hate crime.
“I am saddened and angered by this act,” Minow said.
“We will not always agree on the best ways forward,” Harvard President Dean Faust said. “But we owe it to one another to shape an environment in which every one of us is fully included.”
Students have found the incident offensive and believe it was a clear attack on race.
“I woke up to a bunch of texts,” Kyle Strickland, the school’s student body president, said regarding the incident. “As a black student, it was extremely offensive. And I know the investigation’s ongoing; we’ll see what happened, but to me it seemed like a pretty clear act of intolerance, racism.”
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According to its website, Harvard Law School’s 2015 class was comprised of “44 percent students of color” and does not provide a further breakdown. However, the College Scorecard for the undergraduate class shows just 7 percent of students are Black. And of the 125 full-time faculty members, only 12 are Black.
Professor Ronald Sullivan, a professor at Harvard Law, tweeted a photo of his own defaced portrait.
This is my portrait at the Harvard Law School. All faculty of color woke up to the same thing this morning. pic.twitter.com/T0HLbBYt6Y
— Ronald S. Sullivan (@ProfRonSullivan) November 19, 2015
“This is my portrait at the Harvard Law School,” he wrote. “All faculty of color woke up to the same thing this morning.”
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Following the news, a group of students immediately tracked down Dean Minow and asked that “we talk about this,” according to third-year student Dami Animashaun. This act turned into a meeting, comprised of hundreds of students and several faculty members and administrators, to discuss race relations on campus.
“Racism exist[s] in America … and in Harvard and in Harvard Law School,” Minow said at the meeting.
Shay Johnson, a third-year student and the internal vice-president of the Harvard Black Law Students Association, described the meeting as “very emotional.”
Although admission for the Class of 2018 “represent[s] record levels of diversity,” according to The Harvard Crimson, students attending the school have said this doesn’t hold true for the actual climate on campus.
“While we’re hurt that this happened, we’re really not surprised,” Johnson said. “Because it’s part of this larger system of racial antagonism that [has] been going on in the U.S. and at the law school, whether it’s explicit or implicit.”
In a statement to CNN, senior A.J. Clayborne expressed similar sentiments: “This is merely a symptom of the greater systematic racism that currently permeates this law school and legal institutions in general.”
Also on Thursday, the school’s Working Group on Diversity and Inclusion released a 37-page report that highlighted this grim reality. The report indicates how one initiative, the Students Event Fund (SEF), geared towards helping low-income students backfired:
This program had the admirable aim of affording students the chance to attend up to five campus events each semester at no cost. Yet several students (and, at a different point, alumni) noted how separate lines for SEF ticket pickups marked students to their wealthier classmates; one resident tutor remembered jokes about the “welfare line” or the “poor kids line” during his undergraduate days.
Indeed, a large class gap exists at the school. Only 3 percent of undergraduate students receive federal loans for their tuition, and just 10 percent receive a Pell Grant.
Students have been speaking out regarding Harvard’s problems with diversity for quite some time. Last year, a Tumblr page called I, Too, Am Harvard was launched. According to the page’s description, the site gives a voice to students who feel silenced on campus: “Our voices often go unheard on this campus, our experiences are devalued, our presence is questioned — this project is our way of speaking back, of claiming this campus, of standing up to say: We are here. This place is ours. We, TOO, are Harvard.”
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The students have handled the situation in a seemingly positive way. On Thursday night, following the removal of the black tape from the portraits, students put Post-It notes on the pictures instead and wrote various kind words about their professors. These actions and the way the students reacted to the incident have spoken volumes, according to professors affected by the vandalism.
“I am so proud of these students for reacting with love and kindness, for showing leadership, and for valuing inclusion,” Dr. Tomiko Brown-Nagin, a professor of constitutional law, said.
“My shock and dismay … were replaced with joy and admiration when I saw the lovely notes of affirmation and appreciation that Harvard law students placed on our portraits,” Professor Sullivan said.
The university has scheduled another community meeting for November 30.