The successful fight to retire Harvard Law School’s controversial shield emblem, which has ties to a slaveholding benefactor, has ignited a new battle over equality and racism on the Cambridge campus.
Earlier this week, the Harvard Corporation voted unanimously to retire the image and trademark of the 80-year-old shield, which displays the coat of arms from the family of Isaac Royall, Jr., at one time the largest slaveholding family in Massachusetts.
Now, the school has several more changes on the way, including bringing a visiting critical race theory professor to the school, hiring more faculty of color, revamping school orientations to make them more inclusive and making plans to hire a director for community engagement and equity to focuses on diversity inclusion issues, according to Marcia Sells, the law school’s associate dean and dean of students.
“I really do want to have some quality things come out of this,” Sells said.
Her comments come after several groups formed on the law school’s campus — including Royall Must Fall, which originally organized to remove the shield, and also a coalition of students and staff called Reclaim Harvard Law — that have been pushing for even deeper systemic changes: They’re seeking a separate office of diversity and inclusion that responds to race-related incidents, and other changes.
The shield that ignited the controversy features the coat of arms from the family of Isaac Royall, Jr., whose donation in the 1700s endowed Harvard’s first professorship of law. He owned a sugar plantation in Antigua and farms in Massachusetts that used slave labor.
In a letter explaining the decision to retire the shield, Harvard President Drew Faust and Senior Fellow William Lee wrote they accepted the request “on the understanding that the school will actively explore other steps to recognize rather than to suppress the realities of its history.”
The shield appears on the school’s official letterhead, its website and social media channels, on banners, rugs and on the law school itself.
By mid-April, the school will have deleted the shield from its webpages.
“Removing the shield from the many places it has been used by the school will take some time but the work has begun,” Dean Martha Minow wrote in an email to the Harvard community.
Sells said the school has not yet selected a new official emblem, and plans to define the process to do so in the next school year. It will invite a variety of stakeholders to the table, she added.
A.J. Clayborne, a spokesman for Royall Must Fall, said taking the shield down was only the first step.
“We’re quite pleased with that decision, although we do believe there’s much more work to be done to address systemic racism in the law school,” Clayborne said.
CORRECTED: This story has been corrected. A previous version mis-spelled the name of Drew Faust.