On Using (and Teaching) the Law to Create Change: An Interview with Tomiko Brown-Nagin

Our BlackHer Shero of the Week is Tomiko Brown-Nagin, a law professor and dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. Brown-Nagin is a scholar in constitutional law and history, and one of four Black women who serve as deans at Harvard University. 

Please tell us about your background. 

I am a native of South Carolina.  I grew up in the years following the passage of the Civil Rights Act (“CRA”).  The Civil Rights Movement and the struggle to implement Brown v. The Board of Education impacted my life and educational experience. I was bussed to a desegregated school where I was often the only Black kid in my advanced classes. Because of that experience, I wanted to be a Civil Rights lawyer like Thurgood Marshall. I attended a liberal arts college where I studied history and fell in love with the past and the life of the mind. 

As a college senior, I was told that I really needed to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I still wanted to be a civil rights lawyer, but I also loved history. I wanted to earn a Ph.D. in history and get a law school to use it as a tool for social change. Most people said that I couldn’t earn both a JD and a Ph.D. I resisted their wisdom, and attended Duke for my Ph.D., focusing on modern American history. While I was studying for my doctorate, I went to Yale Law School for a year. Once I got to Yale, people encouraged me to pursue the two degrees and I did. I earned a doctorate from Duke and a law degree from Yale. My educational journey reflects my true passions and intellectual interests.

You are a professor at Harvard Law School. Why did you become a law professor instead of a civil rights lawyer?

Before I became a law professor, I spent my summers working for nonprofits like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (“LDF”) and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (“the Lawyers’ Committee”.) These were incredible experiences! LDF is the standard-bearer for civil rights work. I also practiced law at a large firm, Paul Weiss, for a couple of years. While there, I engaged in a fair amount of pro bono work and did work for corporate clients. As I learned more about what lawyers do, I realized that to pursue my real passions, I needed the autonomy that academics enjoy.   

Being a law professor allows me to contribute to the public discussion of constitutional issues and inequality in ways that I could not as a civil rights lawyer, focused on advocating for particular causes. Being a professor also allows me to conduct legal and historical research on matters that I care about. As a law professor, I can write briefs about affirmative action and teach students. It is the best of both worlds. 

You are a constitutional scholar. Can the legal profession save democracy?  

I would hope so, but this is far from certain.  

The legal profession is just a collection of people dedicated to looking at the world in a certain way, using the lens provided by the rule of law. But history tells us that there needs to be a confluence of factors pushing toward a result within the law.  This means that the rule of law alone does not lead to just or moral outcomes. Human beings must move politics and culture in ways that lead to certain legal outcomes. The idea of the heroic judge is largely a myth. In general, judges do not want to be at the forefront of decision-making during times of crisis involving the Presidency.  Still, I am hopeful that the law and lawyers will help to uphold democracy. We’ll see. The rule of law and the preservation of democratic norms is a lot messier than we’d like to think. Outcomes are not guaranteed.

You have another job at the university.  You are the dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study (“the Institute.”) What do you do in this role? 

I preside over the Institute and its academic programs, including the Schlesinger Library.  I am responsible for ensuring that all of our programs advance the Institute’s dual missions, which are: 1) to advance the study of women and gender in history; and 2) to serve as a home for interdisciplinary scholarly research. 

As a dean, I also manage staff, help to select faculty directors, and promote student engagement with the Institute. I have a unique position of leadership in higher education; some call it one of the best administrative jobs in academia. 

The Institute supports both female and male scholars. Anyone can apply to be a fellow or suggest a conference. Our conferences are truly amazing. Last year we hosted a university-wide interdisciplinary conference on vision and justice, which focused on citizenship and visual culture, a conference on women and gender, and many others. 

One of our goals is to increase the diversity of research on women’s history. We have the Black women’s oral history project.  We have acquired the papers of Angela Davis and Judge Ann Claire Williams (a BlackHer Shero). Historically, the Schlesinger Library has focused on preserving the history of wealthy women in New England. We now also preserve the history and contributions of more diverse women. 

Four Black women are in high profile positions of leadership at Harvard University now, including you, Claudine Gay, Edgerley Family Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Bridget Terry Long, dean of the Graduate School of Education and Michelle Williams, dean of the T.H. Chan School of Public Health.  You’ve been interviewed about your journeys and leadership.  Do you have collective goals? 

We pursue goals that are relevant to the institutions that we represent. We also share a core set of values, including 1) promoting greater access for underrepresented students and inclusion and belonging for all Harvard students, and 2) promoting service and scholarship that is relevant to the broader world and helps make the world a better place.

We talk a lot about the challenges and the opportunities that are involved in our positions, and there are many. It is a very exciting time to be in a leadership position at Harvard. 

Let me ask you the miracle question.  You go to sleep tonight and wake up tomorrow and it’s December 2020 and a miracle has occurred for Black women.  What happened?

Black women and our families are healthy and safe every day.  We no longer have to worry about violence in our communities, including police violence against ourselves or the people we love.   




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