"Why do you keep saying you're shocked?" Lani Guinier (pictured center), a professor at Harvard Law School, prodded me during a recent phone conversation. I called Guinier (yes, she's the one who got pilloried by conservatives when Bill Clinton nominated her to be the assistant attorney general for civil right in 1993) to get her reaction about Harvard Law's latest milestone: granting tenure to its first Asian American woman--Jeannie Suk (pictured left).
Call me naive, but I was genuinely shocked that this big, prestigious bastion of liberalism didn't have a tenured woman of Asian descent until this year. (Harvard announced Suk's tenure last year, but few noticed, probably because everyone assumed that it already had tenured Asian women.) The much smaller Yale Law School, which has 60 full-time faculty members to Harvard's 100, has Amy Chua. Even more astounding, Harvard didn't have a tenured woman of color on its law faculty until 1998, when Guinier moved over from Penn. And Guinier held that fort all by herself until last year, when Annette Gordon Reed (pictured right) accepted a tenure position at Harvard.
Who cares about who gets tenure at some ivory tower? Well, I think it points to a systemic problem with diversity that plagues the whole profession. If minorities--particularly women of color--don't have status at one of the leading law schools in the nation, should anyone be surprised that they're not rising to the top when they enter practice? From the get-go, there's a dearth of role models for women of color.
Anyway, Harvard's rather pathetic record on granting tenure to minority women doesn't surprise NYU Law's Derrick Bell, who famously left his tenured perch at Harvard in protest over its poor record in promoting minority women. Bell e-mailed me:
Hiring Asians, men as well as women, has gone quite slowly even though Asians are an increasing percentage of students at the major law schools and generally perform very well. Hiring of any minority law teachers has proceeded quite slowly over the last ten or more years unless they have super qualifications of the traditional sort and are not outspoken or otherwise threatening to the still mainly white faculties.
Bell's views seem to comport with the findings of Katherine Barnes and Elizabeth Mertz, who studied the tenure process in law schools (see Social Science Research Network). They found that although 70 percent of professors polled "felt that the tenure process was fair," female and minority tenured faculty found the process "less fair," and that "female professors of color had the most negative perceptions."
And what do Guinier and Suk make of all this? Guinier would only say that she's "delighted" that Suk, a former student ("one of the most gifted students I've worked with"), is joining her tiny club. Suk, for her part, discounts that race or sex played any role in Harvard's snail-pace approach to promoting women of color. "I can't say that I felt discrimination," she says, adding somewhat cryptically, "There are complex choices, and subtle signals about what you should do."
Though Suk projects a nonchalance about her elevation, she's also aware that tenured women of color carry symbolic weight: "When I was a student here, Lani was the only woman of color--and it made a difference to me. And now my students tell me that it makes a difference to them."
Related post: First Gay Student to Lead Harvard Law Review.
Editor's Note: Jean Koh Peters was mentioned in the original post as one of Yale Law's tenured Asian American female professors. Yale Law informed us that Peters is a clinical professor and that clinical faculty is not included in the tenured count for ABA reporting purposes. We regret the error.
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