Harvard Law School Proposes Dropping Its Controversial Shield

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The Harvard Law School shield is seen on a window on campus. (Joe Difazio for WBUR)
The Harvard Law School shield is seen on a window on campus. (Joe Difazio for WBUR)

The dean of Harvard Law School is recommending that the school’s shield no longer be used.

A student group demanded the change back in December because the shield is modeled after the family crest of a slave owner who donated land to Harvard.

Dean Martha Minow assigned a committee of faculty, students and alumni to study changing the shield after portraits of black faculty at the school were defaced last fall.

On Friday, Minow sent the committee’s recommendations to the Harvard Corporation, the university’s highest governing body, which will make the final decision.

In its recommendation, the committee recognized that the law school is very different today from what it was in 1937, when the shield, which honors Medford slaveholder Isaac Royall, was adopted. Royall donated land to Harvard that was later sold to pay for the first law lectures at the university.

“It’s important to note that in doing this, we were not judging Isaac Royall, a man of the 18th century, by standards of the 21st century,” Professor Bruce Mann, who led the committee, said in a telephone interview. “Instead we were asking whether an institution in the 21st century should be represented by a man of the 18th century whose only legacy was his money.”

But not everyone agrees with the proposal that the shield, which contains three sheaths of wheat, be dropped.

Professor Annette Gordon-Reed offered a minority proposal to keep the shield.

“This is an opportunity, I thought, using the sheaths, to meld together the history of this school’s origins in slavery, the land that was sold to establish the professorship that goes on later to become the Harvard Law School, to our commitment to justice and public service in modern times,” Gordon-Reed said in a telephone interview. “I just thought it was a way to keep alive the memory of enslaved people.”

Students who have been demanding that the law school drop the shield welcomed Dean Minow’s recommendation.

“I think it says a lot about the sort of change in discourse at the school since the ‘Royall Must Fall’ campaign started, and since many students have talked a little more seriously about what it means to be at Harvard Law School and what our law school education actually means,” Fay Mason, a third-year law student from Acworth, Georgia, said Friday while sitting in the student lounge that protesters took over earlier this semester.

But, Mason said, the students’ work continues.

“We never thought that the shield was going to be the end-all to activism on campus or talking about what the school needs to do differently,” Mason said. “It was really just a visible symbol of what was going on. So I think we will continue to talk about our curriculum, to talk about how we learn, how we teach, how we interact with each other, and I what it really means to be a law student.”

According to a pamphlet handed our during a protest last fall, the students’ many other demands include the establishment of a critical race theory program and “support for students interested in challenging elite institutions and exploring the connections between the law and racial power.”

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