Lani Guinier, Present and Visible

Lani GuinierOnce reluctant to join the Harvard Law School faculty as the only woman of color, Professor Lani Guinier is settling into her Griswold Hall office, her hesitation a thing of the past. Floor-to-ceiling shelves are packed with books interspersed with occasional photos of her husband, Nolan Bowie, who teaches communications and information policy at the Kennedy School, her 11-year-old son, her parents, stepdaughter, nephew, and Anita Hill, among others. An oriental-patterned rug, two wooden armchairs, and a window seat—its cushion on order—make up a sitting area, where Guinier welcomed a visitor just before Christmas for a conversation that touched on her decision to come to HLS from the University of Pennsylvania, her views about teaching and mentoring, and her insights about women’s experience in law school.

Guinier "wasn’t ready" when she was first invited to teach at HLS, as a visiting professor in 1992. "The School was embroiled in controversy about faculty hiring," says Guinier, recalling Professor Derrick Bell’s much-publicized protest and ultimate departure from HLS over the lack of a minority woman faculty member. "I was loath to walk into the middle of it.

"The irony is that it never occurred to me I would be walking into a public controversy when Clinton offered me the nomination for assistant attorney general for civil rights in 1993." Opponents of Guinier’s nomination launched a negative press campaign, maligning Guinier and her law review articles on cumulative voting, and President Clinton soon withdrew the offer. "After that grueling experience, I was less worried about how I would fare if I were at the center of a public controversy."

Happily, none ensued when Guinier visited the School during the 1996 winter term. Soon thereafter, Dean Clark asked her to join the permanent faculty, and July 1998 was ultimately set as the effective date of her appointment. Before making a career move, Guinier was eager to finish the memoir she was immersed in, exploring the politics surrounding the derailment of her AAG nomination, and assessing the progress and potential of the civil rights movement. Lift Every Voice: Turning a Civil Rights Setback into a New Vision of Social Justice was published by Simon & Schuster last April.

The enticements to join the Harvard Law School community were many, Guinier says, among them the "richness" of the faculty, both at the Law School and throughout the University; the prospects of pursuing her academic and theoretical interests from an interdisciplinary perspective, and of joining a faculty "where people are not only serious academics but are also part of the larger public policy world and engaged in real- life problems. William Julius Wilson and Cornel West are not just thinking about issues of race and poverty in the abstract; they are grounded in the experience of people who are less fortunate. Frank Michelman helped to draft the South African constitution, Charles Ogletree helped to create a new charter school in Cambridge, and the list goes on." Adds Guinier, "Many people on the Law School faculty are also very open to different teaching styles."

As for her own teaching style, "I can’t say that I have a single one," Guinier replies, when asked to characterize it. "I am committed to experimenting." One approach she and her students have found mutually satisfying involves small groups preparing for classes together. Students select syllabus topics and other students to work with; Guinier suggests study questions. "Class discussion is very rich because some students have already thought about the issues so deeply," she says. While Guinier finds that many students, especially women and people of color, tend to be "reluctant partners in the Socratic exchange, many women and men of all colors thrive once they have a chance to talk through their ideas in smaller, less formal settings." Yet Guinier doesn’t take this approach to all her classes. "I’m committed to creating a learning community that may require different interventions depending on who’s in the community," she says. "Part of the challenge is not to be rigid, either rigidly collaborative or rigidly Socratic. I always have an ear cocked for a better way."

At the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where Guinier was on the faculty for a decade beginning in 1988, she was one of the most popular teachers, and her courses were among the most highly regarded. HLS students deemed her 1996 winter term class, Law and the Political Process, one of the best courses at the School. Guinier taught the course again this winter term and is teaching a seminar on public lawyering this spring.

Guinier has written and spoken widely about law school teaching methods—most recently at Celebration 45—emphasizing the need to create "learning communities" that accommodate the varied learning styles of all students. In her Celebration 45 address, she drew on her 1997 book, Becoming Gentlemen: Women, Law School, and Institutional Change, to critique what she sees as a pervasive "one-size-fits-all pedagogy" that "marginalizes women and minorities." Becoming Gentlemen reports the findings of a study Guinier coauthored with Michelle Fine and Jane Balin (colleagues at CUNY and Colgate University, respectively) comparing women’s and men’s performances at the University of Pennsylvania Law School from 1990 to 1992. The study revealed that equally qualified women students underperformed compared to the men. Questionnaires, individual interviews, and focus groups revealed the underlying cause of the disparity: many women felt alienated by the classroom environment and alienated from their teachers.

Men students, Guinier says, often participate more easily in the "gamesmanship" that is rewarded in many law school classrooms, where one "wins" by being self-promoting and aggressive in classroom exchange. Women, on the other hand, "are more likely to view classroom exchange as an opportunity for conversation"—an opportunity they sometimes find lacking. Women and men have much to teach each other, says Guinier. As she put it in her Celebration 45 speech, "Women can learn from men how to ‘play the game,’ and men can learn from women that there is a value to coming to class with the goal of listening and of making a contribution building on what other people are saying. That goal has the potential of making you an excellent lawyer. It was my experience as a trial lawyer, it was my experience as a government lawyer, and certainly is my experience as an academic, that those who listen are in a better position to take criticism and use it to move forward in a constructive fashion."

The title of Guinier’s book, Becoming Gentlemen, is a reference to her own experience of alienation from the predominantly white, male milieu of Yale Law School in the early seventies, where her Corporations professor’s daily greeting to the class was "Good morning, gentlemen." The professor acknowledged the presence of the few women in the class, Guinier says, and "admonished us not to feel excluded by his greeting—we too, in his mind, were ‘gentlemen.’" Guinier felt "present but invisible," never once speaking in the class.

While Guinier has few "empowering memories" of law school, she has long carried with her a prior, empowering image that helped her stay her course at Yale and thereafter: in 1962, at the age of 12, Guinier watched on television as Constance Baker Motley, then an attorney for the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, escorted James Meredith to the all-white University of Mississippi. "I said to myself, ‘I can do that, I can be a woman lawyer in the cause of civil rights.’" After law school, Guinier served four years as a special assistant to Drew Days, the first black to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. (Motley is still one of Guinier’s heroes and gave Guinier a signed copy of her book Equal Justice Under Law at Celebration 45.) In Guinier’s own years as a Legal Defense Fund attorney, from 1981 to 1988, she helped win major victories in voting rights cases in Alabama and other southern states.

If Constance Baker Motley served as a symbol for Guinier’s aspirations, Guinier serves a similar function for some of her students, she says. To students who feel "disembodied by the traditions reflected in the larger-than-life [male] visages on the wall, my presence in legal education offers refuge. In their eyes, I am ‘there for them.’ For some, I am them." While Guinier acknowledges that she is a role model, she prefers the term "mentor." "I hold my students to high expectations of themselves, not of me," she says.

Mentoring is a topic of conversation Guinier hopes to pursue at HLS. "One thing women complain about is the lack of mentoring relationships. An important goal for legal education is to encourage mentoring and to set up an incentive structure that supports it. I think all professors should do more mentoring. It’s enormously nourishing to both students and faculty."

At present, in addition to teaching her HLS courses, Guinier is exploring the possibility of collaborating with Kennedy School Professor Jane Mansbridge in a course on the ethics of public decision-making. She is "putting the Tanner Lectures into publishable form"—two talks she delivered this fall on "Rethinking Power" for the University-sponsored Tanner Lectures on Human Values series. She is also preparing the Nathan Huggins Lectures for the University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute in March, on race and representation, which she will deliver with University of Texas Professor Gerald Torres; and working with former Penn colleague Susan Sturm on an article about the race and gender class the two cotaught for seven years.

Meantime, she and her husband and son are settling into their new house, in Cambridgeport. "I deliberated a long time before deciding whether to make this move," says Guinier. "I can now see that it was a good decision for my family and for me. I also hope that my presence here will serve as a catalyst for the Law School community’s efforts to diversify further and thus enrich both its faculty and student body."
by Nancy Waring

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