Harvard Law vs. Free Inquiry
Dean Martha Minow flunks the test.
May 17, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 33 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
Late last month, controversy erupted at Harvard Law School after a private email written in November was leaked to the law school community. In it, a third year student, clarifying her views after a dinner conversation with two close friends, explained to them that she wanted to understand the science and research on whether intelligence may have a genetic component and whether African Americans may be “less intelligent on a genetic level.”
Photo Credit: Jason Seiler
Harvard Law School dean Martha Minow promptly responded by issuing a statement condemning the email and reminding students and faculty that the right to free speech comes with responsibilities. Unfortunately, the dean also reinforced the most common and serious prejudice at American universities today, which targets those who think, or who merely wish to examine critically, nonconforming or disfavored thoughts.
Dean Minow’s statement, moreover, failed to honor the scholar’s duty to restate accurately a view one is criticizing. According to Minow, the student’s email “suggested that black people are genetically inferior to white people.” That’s an incendiary revision.
What the student actually wrote is that she couldn’t “rule out the possibility that African Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent.” Then, in the very next sentence, she entertained the possibility that there is no genetic variation in intelligence between the races: “I could also obviously be convinced that by controlling for the right variables, we would see that they are, in fact, as intelligent as white people under the same circumstances.” The student went on to speculate that “cultural differences” are probably “the most important sources of disparate test scores.” And the student elaborated at length an argument from Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy that in the student’s judgment deftly showed, despite the absence of “quantifiable data,” that racial disparities for violent crimes were rooted in culture. In sum, the student clearly expressed the desire to set aside conclusions of the heart, and instead examine the scientific data and consider reasoned analysis concerning the genetic basis of intelligence.
Minow’s rewriting of the after-dinner email, however, turned the student’s competing hypotheses and interest in the scientific evidence into a crude racist claim about people’s relative moral worth. Unless, perhaps, Dean Minow assumes that interest in some empirical propositions is inherently racist. Or was it the dean’s even more illiberal and antidemocratic assumption that human moral worth is a function of IQ that justified her condemnation of the student?
Furthermore, the dean implicitly encouraged members of the law school community to regard the student as a pariah when she added that “circulation of one student’s comment does not reflect the views of the school or the overwhelming majority of the members of this community.”
While devoting the longest paragraph of her brief statement to praising the Black Law Students Association for the way it handled “the hurt” caused by the email, Minow did not counterbalance her distancing of the law school from the email’s student author by offering even a hint of reproach for the gross violation of the student’s privacy involved in distributing the email, or a word of caution about the difficulties in interpreting private comments that become fodder for public controversy.
In a statement posted on their website, the Harvard Black Law Students Association echoed Minow’s misrepresentation of the student’s views, further contending that the student’s characterization of African Americans as genetically inferior to white people was “racially inflammatory,” “deplorable,” and “offensive.”
By this time, as Dean Minow noted in her statement, the student had already issued an unequivocal apology: “I am deeply sorry for the pain caused by my email. I never intended to cause any harm, and I am heartbroken and devastated by the harm that has ensued. I would give anything to take it back.”
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