Yale Law School in the Sixties Marked by Student Radicalism, Schism in the Left

November 20, 2003
Law professors discussed Laura Kalman's (above) book on Yale during the 1960s.

Yale Law School during the 1960s may have been the "Dark Ages" for former dean Abe Goldstein, who used the phrase to describe a period marked by student radicalism and the school's faltering reputation, but for UC-Santa Barbara history professor Laura Kalman, the era shed light on the split between liberals and the left. Kalman, who is writing a book on the subject, joined commentators John Harrison and Ted White, both law professors who received advanced degrees from Yale, in recalling the period with a nostalgic and critical eye Nov. 17 at an event sponsored by the Program on Legal and Constitutional History.

From 1967-70, Yale administrators faced a student body that demanded a role in the law school's governance and a reformation of grading standards. Harrison, who earned his J.D. from Yale in 1980, noted that Yale students' reaction to the Kent State tragedy in 1970 was to urge faculty to give them credit for classes without sitting for exams. He said the book poses a question about whether student radicalism "was simply a temper tantrum," or "was something more serious and deeper going on?"

Harrison joked that students at the time came to Yale thinking it was an intellectual mecca and not a rat race — "only to find that they were in law school." Yale's upstart First-Year Demand Committee negotiated with the faculty to revise the grading system, and students complained when they did. There was also discord over affirmative action and race. On Alumni Day in 1968, a few days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., a group of African-American students walked out on "Law and the Urban Crisis," because it featured white law school deans and not students or African-Americans; they created a competing panel, "Law is the Urban Crisis." Harrison quoted the student leading the event: "I have a dream. Let me tell you about my dream: there's a big meeting of Yale law school alumni and black men with machetes come in and chop the heads off of everyone and chop and chop and chop and the heads fall."

Law professor John Harrison

New Haven was also the setting for the trial in 1970 of Bobby Seale, a Black Panther accused of murder. Yale students staged a series of protests on May Day weekend that year, during which Yale University President Kingman Brewster Jr. made his famous remarks about the inability of black revolutionaries to get a fair trial anywhere in the United States.

Students also battled for involvement in school governance, which resulted in the faculty offering them an advisory role that had little power. Both sides compromised, allowing students some participation. The faculty reserved the right to meet without students, however, and even held an "executive session" on a Sunday at the dean's house to keep students from knowing about the meeting.

The next year's Alumni Day included an effigy hanging of law professor Alexander Bickle, who was the emblem of stodginess to students at the time. The Hogfarm Commune — an acid-dropping spin-off of the Merry Pranksters — came to town that weekend, along with "cosmic labs": large inflatable structures students could enter to view sound and light shows. Harrison said it was ironic that students rebelled against "young fogies" like Bickle because they were actually fairly liberal.

In the early 1970s six junior faculty were denied tenure, spurring other faculty to leave in what became a painful brain drain that contributed to the "dark" perception of the time by administrators. Former dean Guido Calabresi, who began his term in 1984, turned Yale's fortunes around through fundraising, appeasing student groups, and strategic faculty recruitment. It was "a remarkable series of achievements, accomplished in part because of pure bravura on Guido's part," Harrison said. His success created the impression that Yale was an "unstoppable juggernaut."

Kalman's book also traces the path of American legal thought during the 1960s and 1970s, including the rise of critical legal studies and the new legal process school, both reactions to the law and economics movement.

Harrison questioned whether the student radicalism, especially debates over student governance and affirmative action, had any lasting effect. "The great irony is the one thing that stuck was the grade reform," he said. "The grading system at Yale Law School is incomprehensible." Students had reformed the system in part to discourage student cronyism, but now the only way students can make themselves stand out is to ingratiate themselves with faculty, in what he called a "wonderful example of unintended consequences." He questioned Kalman's inattention to the right wing of legal thought during the same period. "I suspect there is a lot more to be told there," he said. "Maybe [the era's tumult] had an important influence on the right."

Law professor Ted White

White praised Kalman for her copious research and for 'getting people to say things to her in oral interviews." White, who received his M.A. from Yale in 1964 and his Ph.D. there in 1967, noted that he didn't attend the law school, but was around law students and even faculty at times. "I may have missed it, but at least I was there when it happened," he said. White described the book as a portrait of the 1960s with a law school as the focus. "Under pressure from the left, liberalism was severely affected and then the left disintegrated," he said. He cast the interaction between the left and liberalism as similar to the 1930s, when the New Deal failed to move beyond moderate liberalism.

Although the book proposes to cover the period of 1963-94, White noted that most of the book talks about the 1967-70 era. "In fairness she doesn't have the amount of hard evidence to support the story of what's going on" in later years, partly because faculty meetings became more discreet.

The book points out the non-starting effect of two movements: the law and society movement, which Yale was poised to become the center of during the 1960s, but the denial of two key professors' tenures stopped this from happening; and critical legal studies, which Yale missed out on early by failing to hire the appropriate faculty. Now critical legal studies has dispersed throughout legal academia.

White said Calabresi counteracted radical student groups by domesticating them. He made "The Wall," where a student could write any message, and trumpeted free speech. "He portrays Yale as a kind of place where a thousand flowers bloom and [as] a mecca of civil liberties," he said. Through his efforts, "Yale Law School ironically becomes a place where the promise of the Sixties is fulfilled."

But White expressed skepticism that Yale's rise was due solely to these factors. "Yale was better situated than any other elite law school to capture the emergence of interdisciplinary legal scholarship in academics," he said. Old-style legal work or doctrinal work was highly apolitical, and not conducive to the students' new interests. At the same time, the Arts and Sciences academic field dried up, so law beckoned as an option for liberal arts scholars. "The result is a much stronger emphasis on 'law and,'" he said. Yale's vast financial resources and its dual attraction as an Arts and Sciences stronghold attracted the best interdisciplinary scholars. As a consequence, "Yale emerges as the principle feeder to legal academics … in the late 20th, early 21st centuries." He noted that Virginia has over twice as many professors with a Yale law degree than with a Harvard law degree. "The visibility of Yale Law School comes from this feeder effect," he said.

Responding to White's and Harrison's comments, Kalman said, "what really fascinates me about the Sixties as a political period is this confrontation between liberals and the left, and, yes, the possibility of what might have been," Kalman said. It was ironic that the groups who should have forged alliances "came to feel such contempt for each other."

Kalman noted that the movement for grade reform reflected broader currents in the university to re-envision the way education could function. Student governance "was one of the issues that most threatened faculty," she said, so they allowed grade reform to help silence students' demands for shared control of the school.

Yale's grade reform may have contributed to its academic and interdisciplinary reputation, because without deadlines students have more time to work on papers that might end up as books, and faculty aren't pressured to turn in grades quickly either. She noted that she just turned in her last grade for a 2001 class she taught at Yale. She disagreed with Harrison that students didn't have an impact on affirmative action policies, and admitted that she was less interested in telling the conservative viewpoint because she was "not sufficiently sympathetic," although she joked, "in my view you always end up disliking the people you write about."

She said White's point about interdisciplinary studies was a supplementary explanation to Yale's ascendance rather than an alternative explanation. Embracing an interdisciplinary approach allowed Yale to be on the cutting edge while avoiding a destabilizing left critique of critical legal studies. She said she wanted to suggest that a vision of legal liberalism still endures in some fashion, even without a major role for the left.

Kalman's book is scheduled to be published in 2005 by the Chapel Hill Press.


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