Harvard Corporation agrees to retire HLS shield

The Harvard Corporation has approved the recommendation of the Harvard Law School Shield Committee to retire the HLS shield, which is modeled on the family crest of an 18th century slaveholder.

“The Corporation agrees with your judgment and the recommendation of the committee that the Law School should have the opportunity to retire its existing shield and propose a new one,” wrote Harvard President Drew Faust and Senior Fellow William F. Lee in a March 14 letter to HLS Dean Martha Minow.

They also wrote that with the HLS bicentennial approaching in 2017, “we believe the School should have the opportunity to propose a new shield, that in the report’s word’s ‘more closely represent[s] the values of the Law School’ – one conducive to unifying the Law School community rather that dividing it.”

In a message to the HLS community announcing the corporation’s decision, Minow wrote: “The opportunity to consider a new symbol on the threshold of our Bicentennial allows us to engage in a productive and creative focus on expressing the School’s mission and values as we continue to strengthen its dedication to intellectual rigor and truth, to reasoned discourse and diverse views, and to a community marked by mutual respect and inclusiveness. Our constant efforts to marshal talent to serve justice and to advance human freedom and welfare are the best way to symbolize the ideals of Harvard Law School. 

“We cannot choose our history but we can choose that for which we stand. Above all, we rededicate ourselves to the hard work of eradicating not just symbols of injustice but injustice itself,” she wrote.

The shield is modeled on the coat of arms of the family of Isaac Royall, whose bequest endowed the first professorship of law at Harvard. Royall was the son of an Antiguan slaveholder. In 1936, the Harvard Corporation and Radcliffe Trustees adopted seals for 27 Harvard academic units, naming the Royall crest, with its three sheaths of wheat, as the Law School shield.

Because of its ties to slave labor, the shield came under fire in October, when a group of law school students formed an organization called “Royall Must Fall” to demand that HLS discontinue using the Royall family crest as its symbol.

In November, Dean Minow appointed a committee of faculty, students, alumni and staff to evaluate whether HLS should continue using the shield. The committee included: Bruce Mann, Carl F. Schipper, Jr. Professor of Law, chaired the shield committee, which also included legal historians Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Annette Gordon-Reed and Samuel Moyn, as well as Janet Halley, who holds the Royall Professorship of Law at HLS and has written about the legacy of the Royall family and the slaves of the Royall household. Alumnus Jim Bowers ’70, senior counsel at Day Pitney and a member of the Senior Advisory Council of the Harvard Law School Association, also served on the committee, along with Robert Katz ’72, chair of the Dean’s Advisory Board and former general counsel of Goldman Sachs. Also on the committee were three students appointed by the student government, Mawuse H. Vormawor LL.M. ’16, Rena Karefa-Johnson ’16 and Annie Rittgers ’17. The staff representatives were S. Darrick Northington and Yih-hsien Shen ’95.

The committee issued its report recommending to the corporation that HLS abandon the shield on March 3. Two members of the group —Professor Gordon-Reed and law student Rittgers —submitted “A Different View,” arguing that the law school should maintain the current shield, “tying it to a historically sound interpretative narrative about it.”

In its March 14 letter, Faust and Lee expressed appreciation for the main committee report and the separate opinion, as well as the work of the wider HLS community that joined in the process and discussion. They said they agreed with the committee’s view that “modern institutions must acknowledge their past associations with slavery, not to assign guilt, but to understand the pervasiveness of the legacy of slavery and its continuing impact on the world in which we live.”

The corporation emphasized that, while they accepted the request to change the shield, “we do so on the understanding the School will actively explore other steps to recognize rather than to suppress the realities of its history, mindful of our shared obligation to honor the past not by seeking to erase it, but rather by bringing it to light and learning from it.”