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Harvard Law School to ditch controversial shield

Students at Harvard Law are asking the school to change its seal.

Harvard Law School/AP

Students at Harvard Law are asking the school to change its seal.

The image of three sheaves of golden wheat arranged inside a blue-and-crimson shield has stood as the symbol of Harvard Law School and its graduates for nearly 80 years.

But sometime next year, the shield, which uses elements of a former slave-holding family’s coat of arms, will be scrubbed from Harvard’s campus. In its place will be an emblem, officials said Monday, that better reflects the law school’s values and mission.

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The Harvard Corporation, one of the university’s governing boards, has accepted the law school’s request to change the controversial symbol in time for its bicentennial in 2017. Steps have already been taken to erase the shield from the Web.

The board’s decision comes more than a week after a special committee of law school faculty, students, alumni, and staff recommended that the shield be discarded. The recommendation was endorsed by Martha Minow, dean of the law school, who convened the committee in November.

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President Drew Faust and William F. Lee, a senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation, said Monday in a letter to Minow that the school can discontinue the use of the shield “as soon as you see fit.”

“The corporation agrees with your judgment and the recommendation of the committee that the law school should have the opportunity to retire its existing shield and propose a new one,” the letter said. “As you point out, the current shield does not appear to be ‘an anchoring part’ of Harvard Law School’s history.”

The shield depicts the wheat sheaves and Harvard motto “Veritas,” the Latin word for truth. The sheaves were derived from the coat of arms of the family of Isaac Royall Jr., who was “the son of an Antiguan slaveholder known to have treated his slaves with extreme cruelty,” according to the law school.

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Royall’s fortune helped to establish Harvard’s first law professorship, in the 18th century, according to the school.

In 1936, to celebrate Harvard’s tricentennial, heraldic artist Pierre de Chaignon la Rose created emblems for each of Harvard’s graduate schools. His vision for the law school was the shield and wheat sheaves. The image was approved a year later by the Harvard Corporation, but its ties to slavery went undetected. The symbol became more widely used years after its adoption.

The emblem first came under scrutiny in October by a group of Harvard Law students called Royall Must Fall. Members of the group did not return a request for comment but said on Facebook Monday that “Royall has fallen.”

Minow said that ridding the campus of the shield will “take some time” but that the work had already begun. By mid-April, she said in a letter to the law school community, the school’s Web pages will be “reconfigured to omit the shield.”

The school’s Facebook and Twitter logos have already been changed to “Harvard Law School,” instead of using the image of the shield.

Minow said the plan is to have a new symbol in place for the school’s bicentennial.

“The opportunity to consider a new symbol on the threshold of our bicentennial allows us to engage in a productive and creative focus on expressing the school’s mission and values as we continue to strengthen its dedication to intellectual rigor and truth,” she wrote.

In their letter to Minow on behalf of the Harvard Corporation, Faust and Lee said that while the corporation accepts the school’s request to change the symbol, the university does not want to shy away from the shield’s history, prolonged use, and ties to slavery.

“We do so on the understanding that the school will actively explore other steps to recognize rather than to suppress the realities of its history, mindful of our shared obligation to honor the past not by seeking to erase it, but rather by bringing it to light and learning from it,” the letter said.

Minow agreed.

“We cannot choose our history but we can choose that for which we stand. Above all, we rededicate ourselves to the hard work of eradicating not just symbols of injustice but injustice itself,” she wrote in her letter to faculty and students.

Read the letter from the Harvard Corporation below:

Harvard Corp Letter Shield

Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.
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