Harvard Law School was a troubled institution when I was a student there in the 1980s. The faculty was bitterly divided between liberal Democrats and radicals, and the radicals tried to take over. Three decades later it is hard to exaggerate the craziness of that time—demonstrations and mass meetings that were ripples from the power struggle among the professors. For instance, the faculty considered taking class participation into account in second and third year classes. The idea was to enliven classes so that they were no longer like the morgues many resembled. But some students and professors protested that the scheme was a plot to mark radicals down. And one of the radical professors memorably got up on the steps of Langdell Law Library to orate about how the proposal showed what a “repressive place” HLS was.
News of what became known as the “crit wars” got out to the alumni, the President appointed a new Dean, Bob Clark, and HLS slowly ceased to resemble Beirut on the Charles. But not before substantial damage was done. Many faculty members became even less interested in teaching than usual. The best teacher in my entire educational career, Paul Bator, decamped to Chicago. Student leftists were emboldened and got the Harvard Law Review, unlike other major law reviews, to embrace ethnic and racial preferences, replacing a century old tradition where selections were made based on merit alone. But worst of all there was the dispiriting sense that even at the heart of a university, power rather than reason was the coin of the realm.
HLS again seems to be convulsed along a similar fault line.
Harvard Law School, in abject surrender to student activists, is about to change its escutcheon because its design was derived from that of Isaac Royall, Jr., who endowed the first chair at the school. Royall’s father made the family fortune from slave plantations in the West Indies and Massachusetts, a fortune that was therefore tainted (as Balzac said that all great fortunes are).
The Harvard Crimson reports that 98 percent of political donations made by the Harvard Law School faculty goes to Democrats. This disproportion suggests that the lack of political diversity at elite law schools is no better than when I reported on it in my own study ten years ago. As the Anglican church was said to be the Tory party at prayer in nineteenth century England, the legal academy today remains the Democratic party at play.
Already comments dismissing the import of the study are to be found on the internet, such as the observation that the donations at Koch Industries may be similarly one-sided. That misses the point. The concern is not about the political donations per se, but that their distribution suggests that intellectual atmosphere at schools like HLS is politically insular. Lawyers, as Alexis De Tocqueville said, are the political aristocrats of American society, and our elite law schools importantly shape their education. Moreover, law school professors play a large role in the production of new legal ideas and reforms.
There are, no doubt, many reasons for such gross ideological imbalance. One that is little discussed is network effects.