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‘A towering figure’ in American law, Harvard professor Lani Guinier dies at 71

Harvard Law School professor Lani Guinier is shown in her office in Cambridge in 2002.BOHN, John GLOBE STAFF/The Boston Globe - The Boston Gl

Lani Guinier’s critics misjudged her if they hoped she would silently leave the public stage after her 1993 nomination to lead the US Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division crumbled amid rising conservative criticism and fading liberal backing.

Nearly a year to the day after President Bill Clinton withdrew Ms. Guinier’s nomination, she spoke at a college graduation where she chastised conservatives for misrepresenting her work and supporters for saying she should have muffled her views.

“These people suggest that if I had been more quiet about what I was about, that I would have gotten the job, and then I could have gone on and done the job,” she told graduates of Hunter College in New York City in June 1994. “But I believe that if silence is the price of admission, it is also the cost of doing the job.”


An attorney and scholar who envisioned creative ways to make elective politics and admission to top universities more welcoming and inclusive, Ms. Guinier was 71 when she died Friday of complications of Alzheimer’s disease.

The first tenured woman of color at Harvard Law School, she lived in Cambridge, where as a Radcliffe College undergraduate decades ago she was among those who pushed Harvard University to create an African American studies department.

The Bennett Boskey professor of law, emerita, Ms. Guinier wrote several books, including a memoir that detailed the ordeal of her Justice Department nomination being whisked away.

Ms. Guinier also wrote “The Tyranny of the Majority” and “The Tyranny of Meritocracy,” which challenged conventional assumptions about encouraging diversity in government and academia.

“She should be remembered for her unfailing commitment to a vision of equality, opportunity, and democracy where all are empowered to speak, to lift their voices, and to participate,” Tomiko Brown-Nagin, dean of Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, said in an interview.


Brown-Nagin, who also is the Paul professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law School, called Ms. Guinier “a towering figure in American history and the history of American law. She was a brilliant lawyer, scholar, teacher — an extraordinary mentor.”

Ms. Guinier “was one of the most creative and forward-thinking scholars of democracy,” said Guy-Uriel E. Charles, the Charles Ogletree Jr. professor of law, for a Harvard Law School tribute posted online. “She was always many years ahead of her time. She saw both problems and solutions long before everyone did.”

Among the election alternatives Ms. Guinier had highlighted in her writings was cumulative voting, a practice that had long been in limited use.

When it was instituted in an Alabama county, she wrote in a 1994 New York Times essay, cumulative voting gave each voter seven votes to use as they wished to elect seven county commissioners.

Rather than vote once in each of seven contests, voters could cast more than one of their seven allotted votes in an overall election for their preferred candidates — four for one, two for another, a single vote for a third, for example.

“As it turned out, in Chilton County both Blacks and Republicans benefited from this new system,” she wrote. “The county commission now has four white Democrats, two white Republicans and one Black Democrat. Previously, when each seat was decided in a winner-take-all contest, the majority not only ruled but monopolized. Only white Democrats were elected.”


The approach, she said, encouraged “cross-racial coalition building” and offered an added benefit: “It eliminates gerrymandering. This could moot the current debate over race-conscious districting, since Blacks or Latinos or any politically cohesive minority could elect representatives of their choice without the need to draw funny-shaped districts.”

But when Clinton nominated Ms. Guinier in April 1993 to be assistant attorney general for civil rights, condemnation from conservatives was swift, and the nuances of her scholarship were reduced to a sound bite.

“A Wall Street Journal headline writer on April 30 conceived the killer epithet: Clinton’s ‘Quota Queen,’ " she later wrote in the New York Times.

“Looking back, it is remarkable how I could so easily be labeled a Quota Queen by so many, given the complexity of my essays,” she added.

Almost 27 years after that New York Times piece appeared, her words might easily be used by either side in today’s era of political polarization.

“My point is simple: 51 percent of the people should not always get 100 percent of the power; 51 percent of the people should certainly not get all the power if they use that power to exclude the 49 percent,” Ms. Guinier wrote. “In that case we do not have majority rule. We have majority tyranny.”

Carol Lani Guinier was born in Manhattan, N.Y., on April 19, 1950, and grew up in Queens.

Her mother was civil rights activist Eugenia Paprin Guinier, a daughter of Jewish immigrants who was known as Genii and had worked as a speech therapist and a high school English teacher.


Ms. Guinier’s father, Ewart Guinier, was a lawyer, union organizer, and professor.

He had attended Harvard as an undergraduate for two years before leaving when he was denied financial aid for failing to have included with his admissions application a photo that would have revealed his race at a time when the university admitted almost no Black students.

“My father’s experience at Harvard College in 1929, as he recounted it to me, was an early lesson in the indignity and inhumanity of racism,” Ms. Guinier said at a news conference in 1993 after her Justice Department nomination was withdrawn.

Finishing his education and law degree elsewhere, he later returned to Harvard as the first chairman of the Afro-American Studies Department.

Growing up was its own lesson in racial attitudes and perception, Ms. Guinier wrote. As a daughter of a white mother and Black father, “I had fielded my share of questions from perfect strangers asking, ‘What are you?’ "

In 1971, she received a bachelor’s degree from Radcliffe, and three years later she graduated from Yale Law School, where Clinton was a classmate.

After clerking for judges she joined the Carter administration, serving as special assistant to Assistant Attorney General Drew S. Days in the Civil Rights Division.

She then worked for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, where she rose to lead the Voting Rights project. In 1988, Ms. Guinier joined the University of Pennsylvania Law School faculty and stayed until moving in 1998 as a tenured professor to Harvard Law School.


Four years later, students honored her with the Albert M. Sacks-Paul A. Freund Award for Teaching Excellence. She became a professor emerita in 2017.

While working for the legal defense fund, she met Nolan Bowie on a blind date. They married in 1986. He is a lawyer who taught at Temple University in Philadelphia and is a fellow emeritus at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Their son, Niko Bowie, is an assistant professor at Harvard Law School, and was honored with the Freund Award last year. In a video posted online, he recalled that when he told her during the week “she transitioned into hospice for late-stage Alzheimer’s.”

When she was diagnosed several years ago, her husband and son asked what she wanted “do with the rest of her life,” Niko said.

“Her answer was always the same: ‘I want to teach,’ " he said. “Teaching meant everything to her.”

He encouraged his students to “lead a career like my mom led, one that concludes not with a list of your accomplishments or an accounting of your earnings, but with a celebration of the people you have empowered.”

In addition to her husband and son, Ms. Guinier leaves three sisters, Chlotilde Stenson, Sary Guinier, and Marie Guinier; and a granddaughter.

The family will announce a memorial gathering to celebrate Ms. Guinier’s life and work.

“Lani was smart as they come, insightful about people, generous in sharing her wisdom and time, and funny,” said former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, who worked with her at the NAACP legal defense fund. “We could grind on some case through the night, and interrupt it with belly laughs.”

Brown-Nagin said Ms. Guinier “leaves behind a profound legacy” on more than a professional level.

“Her personhood, the way she carried herself is also a part of her legacy,” Brown-Nagin said. “She touched lives because she was such a warm and generous person, and so compassionate. She believed in talking to people across lines of difference, which is something that too often is missing in our country today.”

To foster diversity in higher education, Ms. Guinier pushed for universities to move past the longtime “testocracy” of over-emphasizing standardized tests like the SAT, which “correlate so strongly with family income that they serve as a proxy for socioeconomic status.”

And in politics, she said, the survival of democracy depends on both addressing inequities and stepping away from a “winner-take-all” approach.

“The fundamentally important question of political stability is how to induce losers to continue to play the game,” she wrote. “Political stability depends on the perception that the system is fair — to induce losers to continue to work within the system rather than to try to overthrow it”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.