Why I Changed My Mind

Four faculty members reconsider long-held professional views

Even the greatest legal thinkers have to change their minds sometimes. The HLS panel “Why I Changed My Mind” brought together four faculty to share their moments of reckoning, when they had to re-examine some of their most closely held ideas about issues ranging from gun laws to brownies.

The March 4 event drew an overflow crowd to Milstein East on a snowy morning, proving so popular that it’s now being planned as an annual event. And the students who attended were no doubt reassured to learn that nobody always “gets it right” the first time. “Perhaps this speaks to the hunger to witness people realizing they might have been wrong about something, changing their minds to a new view,” said moderator Jonathan Zittrain ’95, George Bemis Professor of International Law.

Credit: Lorin Granger Professor Laurence Tribe ’66

In the case of Carl M. Loeb University Professor Laurence Tribe ’66, the mind-change challenged some of his own strongest principles. Long an outspoken advocate for gun control, Tribe professed for decades that the 2nd Amendment has no application to current gun laws, since it specifies the right to arm militias rather than individuals. “I personally hate gun violence and wouldn’t mind having all guns confiscated,” he said. “And I wrote for 20 years that the 2nd Amendment had nothing to do with modern society, since we no longer keep militias.” However, he made a closer study more recently and concluded that the 14th Amendment granted certain rights to the formerly enslaved, including the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms. This he said was consistent with the Supreme Court’s ruling in McDonald v. City of Chicago (2010).

After writing about his reconsideration, Tribe found himself congratulated by pro-gun activists for the first and only time in his career. “Charlton Heston called me and said, ‘I see you are now one of us.’ And I said, ‘Well, no. I admired you as Moses [in “The Ten Commandments”] but I prefer tight regulation.’ He never called back.”

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Credit: Lorin Granger David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History Jill Lepore

“My own change of mind didn’t warrant coverage in the New York Times,” said Harvard Professor of American History Jill Lepore, who is teaching a reading group at HLS on the Second Amendment this spring. Yet she too had to reexamine a long-held belief. She’d made close studies of the 1925 Scopes “monkey trial,” and like many historians she’d held a low opinion of prosecutor William Jennings Bryan. “He was ridiculed by his contemporaries; Clarence Darrow called him ‘the idol of all morondom’,” Lepore noted. Yet a closer look revealed that history may have done a disservice to Bryan, who died soon after the trial and couldn’t defend himself. She came to realize that Bryan didn’t always distinguish between Darwinism as scientific theory and social Darwinism as a political process; he said for example that the Pure Food and Drug Act wouldn’t have survived if the weaker in society were allowed to die off.

“He had a progressive social vision along with his religious fundamentalism,” Lepore noted. “He indicted the hubris of modernism against the suffering of people left behind by it. This I find incredibly powerful.” Though Bryan’s fundamentalism made it impossible for Lepore to fully support him, she argued that his thought was more complex than history recalls.

For Professor of Law Jeannie Suk Gersen ’02, her moment of reevaluation came during the transition from being a rape counselor to a lawyer. “As a counselor I received training that I sincerely believed in, and part of it was that you should always believe the person who is saying they were a victim. That was a fundamental tenet.” She believed this so strongly, she said, that she initially felt she could never be a criminal defense attorney. Yet this belief was challenged when she began working in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. “I realized that the search for truth starts out with not believing anyone. And I know that doesn’t sound radical, but in my personal journey it was.” This realization, she emphasized, doesn’t make her any less of a feminist. “I do insist on calling myself a feminist. That is where my motivation comes from.”

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Credit: Lorin Granger Professor Jeannie Suk Gersen ’02 (left) and Lecturer on Law Kendra Albert ’16

As for the cookies and brownies, they figured into a moment of truth for Lecturer on Law Kendra Albert ’16, [who uses the pronouns they/theirs]. With tongue-in-cheek humor, they described reevaluating their feminism after bringing baked goods to an office meeting. “Before 2012 I didn’t have an opinion on this important and complex topic,” they said. “But during the meeting I found myself over-analyzing whether people liked the cookies, whether they’d taken seconds or not. My ability to run the meeting was crumbling into the carpet, along with the stray crumbs.” Thus they decided that a woman should never bring baked goods to a meeting; “Opting out felt radical and transgressive.” Yet they changed their mind back after a colleague brought brownies to a later meeting, and Albert found they didn’t respect the colleague any less. “I decided that one way out of the trap of patriarchy, where you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t, is to do what you would have wanted to do anyway.”

Tribe gave the event a suitable capper when he asked if the other panelists had originally picked a different topic to focus on in their talk. And sure enough, each of them had– but of course, they changed their minds.