Harvard Law School is quietly scrubbing slavery from its brand

The hallowed halls of Harvard Law.
The hallowed halls of Harvard Law.
Image: AP Photo/Charles Krupa
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What’s in a name—or a symbol, or a shield, for that matter?

It’s a fierce debate at many US universities right now. They’re questioning whether historic markers that have ties to racism, like Princeton’s use of the name of former president and notorious white supremacist Woodrow Wilson on its buildings, should be allowed to remain on modern-day campuses.

Oxford recently moved to take down a statue of Cecil Rhodes, then reversed course after alums protested. Yale is still trying to decide how it feels about one of its residential colleges bearing the name of a public slavery supporter. At Harvard, administrators have decided to drop the word ”master” from certain faculty titles, replacing it with the much more neutral ”faculty dean.”

Harvard’s now taking a second step in that direction. A committee at Harvard Law School—formed by dean Martha L. Minow after racially-charged vandalism appeared on the portraits of black law professors last fall—decided Friday (March 4) that the school should abandon its 80-year-old shield, which is based on the crest of the Royalls, a prominent slave-owning family that helped establish the law school’s first professorship in the 18th century.

The current shield design (courtesy of Harvard Law School’s website).
The current shield design (courtesy of Harvard Law School’s website).

Writing that the current shield does not “closely represent the values of the school,” the committee of 12 professors, alumni, staff, and students, with Minow’s support, is urging Harvard’s governing body to find “better ways to engage the past and its legacy” that don’t involve holding onto a “symbol that so many members of the community reject.” Two of the committee members didn’t agree: They penned a dissenting opinion asking the seal be kept as an “honest” reminder of the school’s connection to slavery.

And that disagreement is the crux of the matter at Harvard and beyond, right now. Do schools with long histories—in the interest of championing modern values—have a responsibility to scrub themselves clean of racism and bigotry? Or does that kind of erasure sanitize an all too real history, and promote coddling and weakened intellectual spirit? In trying both not to offend and not to deny their founding legacies, schools are at difficult crossroads. While Harvard is moving in one direction, other universities’ courses are not yet clear.