Derrick Bell, a law professor and rights advocate, died Oct. 5th at the age of 80. The New York University law professor was the first tenured black professor at Harvard Law School, hired in 1969. He became dean of The University of Oregon School of Law in 1980, becoming the first black to ever head a non-black law school. He left the school in 1985 to protest the lack of minority hiring and taught at Stanford for a year.
He returned to Harvard in 1986, but took an unpaid leave of absence from the school in 1990 to protest the lack of a black woman on the tenured faculty and he never returned. Students held vigils, protested and even filed a lawsuit, all to no avail.
Harvard refused to extend his leave after two years, and he spent the remainder of his career at NYU. Harvard hired Lani Guinier, its first black woman, in 1998.
“I think most schools see the value of having a goodly representation of minorities in the student body,” Bell told The National Jurist in 1992. “They find that’s a helpful element in the classroom and that overall standards have not gone down. But what most faculty and policy-makers really care about is who are going to be their colleagues. That’s where the more traditional, more rigid views kick in.”
Bell was a pioneer in critical race theory and one of the most influential critics of traditional civil rights. His 1973 book, “Race, Racism and American Law” became standard in law schools.
He died of carcinoid cancer at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital, near where he lived on the Upper West Side. He graduated from University of Pittsburgh Law School in 1957.