Walter Leonard, champion of diversity in higher education: 1929 – 2015

Walter J. Leonard, left, in 2011 with Derek C. Bok, a former dean of Harvard Law School and president of Harvard University.

Credit: Martha Stewart Walter J. Leonard, left, in 2011 with Derek C. Bok, a former dean of Harvard Law School and president of Harvard University.

Walter Leonard, an educator and leader who played a critical role in expanding diversity at Harvard Law School and then at Harvard University in the late 1960s and 1970s, died on December 8, 2015, at the age of 86.

In the work he did as Assistant Dean and Assistant Director of Admissions at Harvard Law School at the end of the 1960s, during the deanship of Derek Bok, Leonard built the foundation for the education of more minority and women lawyers than almost any other administrator in the United States, through a skillful and multifaceted strategy that included conferences, recruitment, and outreach programs.

In 1971, after Bok became President of Harvard, he appointed Leonard as a Special Assistant. In that role, Leonard was the primary force behind the Harvard Plan, a blueprint for establishing equal educational and employment opportunities in higher education. The Plan was cited approvingly by the United States Supreme Court in the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke decision and adopted by hundreds of colleges and universities nationwide. Leonard also chaired the committee that established Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research.

“Walter Leonard was an exceptional leader during a critical moment in the history and advancement of higher education in the United States,” said Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow. “With creativity, diplomacy, vision, patience and steadfast determination, he was a pivotal catalyst for diversity and for the recruitment of minority students, faculty and staff. He also helped the Law School and then the University to navigate smoothly through the turbulence and upheaval that marked the years of change in which he played such a vitally important role. The work he did at Harvard had a ripple effect across the nation, and his influence and impact were ultimately felt in higher education nationwide. He was a truly inspiring agent for change, and his life inspires us to carry forward, in new ways, the work he did here.”

In 2011, the Law School bestowed Leonard and Bok with the HLS Medal of Freedom, the school’s highest honor, during Harvard Law School’s 3rd Celebration of Black Alumni.

Said Bok: “Walter Leonard became my colleague toward the end of my first year as Dean of the Law School at a critical time in our effort to achieve racial diversity in our student body and to achieve such diversity throughout the Law School — in the faculty, the staff, and the construction workers in the building of Pound Hall. The atmosphere was tense and progress could not be as rapid as many of our students felt was necessary. Walter’s presence turned out to be a real blessing to all concerned. To me, he was a good friend who was able to convey a clear and discerning sense of what concerned the students and why it was important while still understanding my need to be responsive without violating important academic principles or agreeing to steps that would ultimately work to the disadvantage of everyone, including the minority students themselves.”

“His position was extremely delicate and difficult,” said Bok, “and he carried it out with great distinction. His performance was recognized by the award which was bestowed on both of us a few years ago. His award recognized the understanding, perceptiveness, and integrity with which he dealt with the problems we confronted, always with a determination to make the experience of black students here a positive one for them and a foundation for the many contributions they could make to our society after they graduated. My award simply recognized my willingness to be guided by his good judgment and his ability to see all sides of a very complex and extremely important challenge and opportunity for the Law School. I cherish the memory of a very fine and good friend.”

In 1976, Leonard left Harvard to become President of Fisk University. In a Harvard Crimson story noting his departure, Archibald Cox `34, Williston Professor of Law and a close friend of Leonard’s, said: “His judgment and his moral strength were of enormous value. I was there — he was a person to rely on, to lean on. … I remember this because those affairs were very tense and difficult. You remember the people who were strong and helpful. Walter Leonard was particularly so.”

Recalling another side of Leonard, Cox said, “His persuasiveness, his ability to exemplify the highest kind of standards and intellectual and moral qualities, are things which I put down that enable this man to be effective with both his professional colleagues and his students.”

According to an account in the Harvard Crimson, Leonard effected “tremendous advances in the numbers of and attitudes toward, minority students and women [at HLS], setting a new tone for other institutions in the country and other parts of the University. An administrator at the Law School told the Crimson that Leonard was responsible for a very large increase in the number of minority applicants to the school in the 1969-71 period, having done a superior job of recruitment. “Both in intensity, coverage, manner and style, he brought in applicants,” he said.

Leonard was also known to spend tremendous amounts of time with students, counseling them and discussing their aims. “In a period when black students here felt in a strange environment, he managed to give them the feeling that they belong here,” a colleague told the Crimson. “It was not easy to do.”

Walter Leonard was born on October 3, 1929, in Alma, Georgia. His early education was in the Savannah, Georgia, public schools and later at Savannah State College. He went on to study at Morehouse College, Atlanta University’s Graduate School of Business, Howard University School of Law and Harvard Business School.

In 1978, as president of Fisk University, Leonard famously used a $1.5 million insurance policy on his life as collateral to obtain a loan to keep the school from closing. Fisk was nearly bankrupt when Leonard assumed the presidency in 1977. Over the course of his seven-year presidency, Leonard managed to raise more than $12 million dollars for Fisk.

Following his retirement from the presidency of Fisk, Leonard was appointed a Distinguished Senior Scholar at Howard University; Executive Assistant to the Governor, U.S. Virgin Islands; and National Executive Director, Cities in Schools (Communities in Schools).

A prolific author, Leonard published scholarly articles dealing with such topics as the First Amendment, Black capitalism, education, the challenges facing Black students in predominantly white schools, student protest movements in universities, international trade, housing, and affirmative action.

Over the years, Leonard served as a visiting professor or lecturer in law at many of the nation’s leading universities, including Virginia, Kansas, Howard, Pennsylvania, Boston College, Harvard, Temple, California (Davis) and Maryland. He also served as a board member or consultant for many of the country’s most renowned policymaking organizations, including the Ford Foundation, the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Department of Commerce and the United Negro College Fund. Two fellowships were created at Oxford University in his honor.