Harvard Federalist Society Conference: Intellectual Diversity and the Legal Academy

Last week, I posted about a conference at Harvard on the topic of intellectual diversity in the legal academy. I’m pleased to report that the conference was a great success, well conceived and well executed by the excellent students of the Harvard chapter of the Federalist Society. If nothing else, it succeeded in shining a light on the stark political / jurisprudential / methodological imbalance at the top law schools. It turns out that many of these schools are just like Georgetown Law — where most students will graduate after three years without ever once laying eyes on a conservative or libertarian professor at the front of a classroom.

Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow was unable to attend the conference, but she did provide a written statement, which is an eloquent endorsement of intellectual diversity:

“He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.” John Stuart Mill’s insight carries importance for any place of learning and special significance for a law school. For one cannot truly understand a legal argument on behalf of one client or side without thoroughly understanding and addressing competing arguments and objections. Even if there were no other reasons available, this would supply sufficient basis for a robust commitment to intellectual diversity among the faculty and students, courses and journals, activities and speakers at Harvard Law School.

But there are other powerful reasons to pursue and nurture intellectual diversity at Harvard Law School. We recruit extraordinary students and work hard to equip them to pursue great careers and great dreams. Both in honing their aspirations and equipping them to achieve them, nothing works as well as serious intellectual encounters with smart and motivated individuals with varied viewpoints. Faculty and students also advance knowledge and law reform through scholarship and public service. Here, too, debates within and across groups deepen scholarship and test law reform ideas. It would be wonderful if one did not have to leave Harvard Law School to discover objections and improvements to descriptions and revisions of financial institution behavior, consumer products safety, national security strategies, federalism, and constitutional adjudication, just to name a few current subjects of research and reform work, but it will suffice if being at Harvard Law School affords faculty and students with super preparation for any ideas and concerns that may be encountered elsewhere. This is the path of truth-seeking; this is the method of iterative improvement. Yet there is at least one more crucial reason for placing priority in intellectual diversity within this institution. The bet made by commitments to the rule of law and to democracy is that we can use reason and participatory institutions to govern diverse and often contentious individuals and groups. That bet cannot prevail without cultivation of leaders who set the example for civil and curious engagement across all kinds of divides—be they defined by race, region, class, language, political party, gender, ideology, or other signifiers of difference. Modeling and cultivating honest and engaged discussion across lines of difference is not only our best practice. It is our commitment to make good on the privileges that the Harvard Law School enjoys, reflects, and bestows.

John Stuart Mill also wrote, “In all intellectual debates, both sides tend to be correct in what they affirm, and wrong in what they deny.” I am not sure he is right, but I think we will make more progress testing this and many other propositions in the company of talented people who draw sustenance from varied and clashing intellectual resources. We may even find surprising points of agreement and convergence, but we would not even know of this wonderful possibility in the absence of intellectual diversity.

Video of the conference is available here. Some highlights include co-conspirator Jim Lindgren’s presentation of the startling empirical data on intellectual diversity (Panel 1 – 6:10); Jack Goldsmith’s powerful remarks about what it is like to be a right-leaning professor at Harvard Law School (Panel 1 – 18:30); and Robby George’s eloquent observations about the “non-conscious discrimination” that is at least partially responsible for this extreme imbalance (Panel 3 – 20:30).

Watch the whole thing.

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