Try as she might, Liz Warren has been unable to put to rest the flap over her claimed Native American ancestry. That’s because the controversy raises legitimate questions about the integrity of this Senate candidate and Harvard Law prof, who once listed herself as a minority — despite being, at best, only 1/32nd Cherokee. But the story also has legs because of questions it raises about affirmative action in the 21st century — and about Warren’s views on this issue.
A bit of context:
When I was a student at Harvard Law School in the early 1990s, the faculty was notoriously divided along ideological lines. “Beirut on the Charles” was the apt description given to the law school by GQ Magazine. And, indeed, so antagonistic was the climate that the faculty was unable to come to agreement on new hires. Professors distrusted one another, and their animosity seeped into the student body.
In early 1992, in an attempt to break the political gridlock, Harvard Law offered tenured faculty positions to four candidates — two liberals and two conservatives. Although ideologically diverse, all were white males.
To a radicalized and disgruntled student body, the “compromise” was like a match to a powder keg. And it wasn’t long before the campus erupted in a series of highly-publicized protests and sit-ins. Against this backdrop of racial and gender politics, Liz Warren arrived in Cambridge the following fall. Then a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Warren came to Harvard Law as a visiting professor (on a sort of trial basis).
We now know that during this time, Warren listed herself as a “minority” in a professional directory used by law schools for recruiting purposes. Warren says she did this in order to meet other Native Americans. More likely she did so in order to catch the eye of hiring committees at prestigious law schools.
Once at Harvard, Warren quickly developed a reputation as an engaging and committed teacher. Students of all political stripes flocked to her classes. I was one of them.
It is not difficult to imagine what the hiring committee might have made of all this. Here was a teacher who was beloved by students on all sides of the ideological spectrum — virtually unheard of at Harvard during this time. And this teacher happened also to be Native American. Can you blame them if they thought that hiring Warren would solve the law school’s political problems? Or that, at the very least, she’d buy them some time?
One thing is clear: Once Warren joined the faculty, Harvard touted her minority status in order to burnish its diversity credentials. And yet, when it came to conservative minority job applicants, Harvard’s commitment to diversity proved hollow. Indeed, around the same time, the law school declined to hire a highly-regarded, conservative scholar of Hispanic descent. The reason? As a conservative, this fellow was not “a real minority” — at least not the kind that radical law professors wanted as a colleague.
Which brings us to the following questions for Elizabeth Warren:
1. Do you favor racial preferences in university hiring and admissions? In the corporate world? In federal contracting? How about in government lending policies?
2. Do you believe that racial preferences cast doubt upon the qualifications of minorities who would have excelled without the extra boost?
3. Who should “count” as a minority for purposes of affirmative action? Anyone with minority roots? Or only those who are one-fourth or one-half minority?
4. Does “diversity” include all minorities? Or only those with left-wing political viewpoints?
These are important questions, Professor Warren. The public deserves your answers. But don’t worry, we’ve got until November.