CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Once upon a time there was a black law professor at Harvard who taught his students an unforgettable lesson. Angered that the elite school hadn't hired a woman of color as a full-time teacher, he vowed to renounce his $125,000 salary and take a leave of absence until the Ivy League institution changed its ways.
One year passed, then two, and still the school hadn't budged. When the outspoken professor sought a third year of leave, officials invoked a university rule and terminated him. Although many of his students were angry, few faculty members protested. The crusade ended in failure.
Like many of the tales and parables taught by Prof. Derrick Bell in his law classes, this one presents a sobering message: While blacks can hammer away at injustice, white America holds all the power.
It's a story that teaches minority students to prepare for the worst, but also to fight for their rights.
Unfortunately for Bell, it's also true.
In a case that drew national attention, he lost his tenured job at Harvard last July after the school refused to extend a leave of absence that began in 1990. Bell had called it a protest of conscience--a demand for greater diversity on the virtually all-white law school faculty--but Dean Robert C. Clark was not impressed. Harvard would continue to recruit the best available legal talent, including minorities, Clark said, yet nobody was going to stampede the nation's oldest law school.
In a year when Harvard boiled over with student protests--causing some to label it the Beirut of legal education--the decision to terminate Bell was just one more headache for administrators. But it was a stinging setback for the man who made history 20 years ago as the law school's first tenured black professor. Bell has been a successful teacher and a role model for minority legal scholars. Yet to hear him tell it, his students were the biggest losers.
"The idea that this school can't find one qualified black woman to hire full time is an insult," he says. "They should be ashamed of themselves."
Although Bell's angry protest began as an in-house dispute, it has traveled beyond the gates of Harvard. He blisters the university and other foes in his newly published book, "Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism," and is much in demand as a speaker. He also has a new job--and media pulpit--as a visiting professor at New York University School of Law. Despite urgings from friends, Bell insists he'll never return to his former post.
"I've always tried to teach my students that because they come out of Harvard, they have a special strength," he says. "Basically, I've wanted them to know that they can stand up for themselves, that they don't have to take crap from anybody, no matter how tough things get."
Not surprisingly, Bell's protest has stirred angry criticism. Some colleagues call him a media manipulator who unfairly attacks the school. Others say he has deprived students of an education while he makes money on the lecture circuit. Bell, 61, has even drawn fire from some women at Harvard, who complain that he has unfairly hijacked their issue.
"This guy is a victim of his own self-delusion," says one faculty member who asked not to be identified. "He's an example of the Harvard syndrome: People here can say the most idiotic things, and the only reason they get into print is because they're from the Harvard Law School."
Yet in another sense, Bell may be the victim of his own success. Since coming to Harvard in 1969, he has been at the epicenter of one protest after another. He's conducted sit-ins and vigils, written angry manifestoes on race, blasted his colleagues in the press and urged students to challenge white educators. The pace of these protests has picked up in recent years, plunging the school into ugly debates over alleged racism and sexism.
During one three-month period this year, Harvard was rocked by student calls for Clark's resignation. Women were infuriated when a law review spoof satirized a female law professor who had been brutally murdered. Flexing their muscles, one group of students sued the law school over diversity issues, while another faction staged a sit-in at the dean's office. Meanwhile, some of the nation's most well-known professors--such as constitutional law expert Laurence Tribe and criminal law attorney Alan Dershowitz--squabbled angrily in public over the school's troubled intellectual climate.
Amid these upheavals, Bell's struggle had to compete for attention. By late spring, the campus seemed exhausted by protest, and his departure was a foregone conclusion. Officials cited a rule barring leaves of absence for more than two years and said there would be no exceptions.
After years of fighting, Bell accepted the verdict and began a new life in New York.