Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Derrick Bell: Keeper of the Flame

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Derrick Bell: Keeper of the Flame

Article excerpt

Editor's note: No discussion of a commitment to diversity in higher education would be complete without talking to Derrick Bell. Unfortunately, as Black Issues was preparing the following article, Professor Bell fell ill and was unavailable for an interview. Black Issues is happy to report that at press time he was reported as doing better.

Professor Derrick A. Bell Jr. is known throughout academic circles under many names: The Race Man, The Steward, The Scold, The Pessimist, and The Realist, among others. He is often recognized as a pioneer of critical race theory and, perhaps most definitively, as the man who walked away from Harvard University.

When Bell went to Harvard University Law School in 1969 after years as a civil rights lawyer, his understanding was that his would be the first of several appointments of faculty of color. When he received tenure in 1971, he was still alone. And despite the appointment of some visiting professors, he remained alone on the faculty for many years. During that time he helped develop the notion of critical race theory, a collection of ideas that center on the way law has been used to enforce racism in the Western world.

In Confronting Authority, published in 1994, Bell describes his frustration with Harvard University: "Twenty years after hiring me as the school's first full-time [B]lack law professor, Harvard's diversity record at the Law School was poor and in the rest of the University appalling. Harvard's claim that it made goodfaith efforts to diversify its almost entirely [W]hite and male faculty was belied by the fact that not even one Latino, Asian, or Native American professor had joined the law faculty. Although over the years a half-dozen [B]lack men gained faculty appointments, Harvard had stood aside while women of color taught and earned tenured positions at other prestigious law schools, including Georgetown, New York University, and the University of Pennsylvania."

As much as the university held fast that it was actively seeking out potential minority hires, students as well as Bell got a different impression.

"They would talk to us about making changes," explains Sheryll Cashin, now a law professor at Georgetown University who was a student of Bell's during the late 1980s at Harvard. "But nothing would happen."

"Derrick was the most important mentor in legal education for years because he was the only Black man, for one thing," says Columbia University law professor Patricia Williams, who was a student of Bell's. "He took everyone seriously - especially Black women, which was rare."

Bell had already left the deanship of the law school at the University of Oregon in 1985, where he had relocated during a brief leave from Harvard. He left Oregon because the West Coast institution wouldn't tenure an Asian woman whom he thought deserved it.

Now he would do the same at Harvard. In 1990, he told his dean he was taking leave and would not return until the institution hired a woman of color.

"I cannot continue to urge students to take risks for what they believe," he told Boston Globe, "if I do not practice my own precepts."

Bell's decision sprang from his belief that ethnic and gender diversity brought new experiences and new ways of thinking, something which was brought home to him during the visiting professorship of Regina Austin at Harvard.

In his letter requesting leave, reprinted in part in Confronting Authority, he wrote: "Although I have never forgotten my representational function on this faculty, I was slow to recognize that as a [B]lack man, I am not able to understand, interpret, and articulate the very unique conditions and challenges [B]lack women face. …

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