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November 19, 2015

An investigation is underway at Harvard Law School after the portraits of some African American faculty were found defaced on Thursday (Michelle Hall/Courtesy of Blavity.com).

Harvard University is investigating what campus police are calling a hate crime after law school students there found that portraits of some African American faculty members were defaced. This comes as students throughout the country protest incidents of racism on their campuses.

Inside Wasserstein Hall, pieces of black electrical tape had been placed over the faces of nine black professors' portraits.

"A lot of people were not surprised to see something like this because of what’s going on not just on our campus but our country,” said student body president Kyle Strickland. He sees the crime as a blatant reminder that racism exists on campus.

"This is right in front of us and the question is: are we going to push it to the side or are we really going to talk about these issues?" Stickland said.

Student activists want the law school to hire more African American faculty and to change its seal because the current image is derived from the family crest of an 18th century slaveholder - Isaac Royall, Jr., whose estate funded the first professorshp there. 

On Thursday, Harvard law professors said they were disappointed by the incident but they were reluctant to speculate whether it was in retaliation to students' demands.

Professor Tomiko Brown-Nagin, whose picture was defaced, told WGBH News: "It's impossible to know what the anonymous perpetrator of this incident hoped to accomplish."

By the afternoon, police had removed the tape and students responded by posting signed Post-It notes of support.

"Whenever you see faces crossed out that connotes erasure - of silencing," Professor Ron Sullivan told WGBH's Greater Boston. "As upset as I was when I saw the tape there, I was extraordinarily heartened when students left what they call love notes." 

Students responded to the vandalism by posting signed Post-It notes of support (Kirk Carapezza/WGBH).

In an email, Dean of Students Martha Minow said she was saddened and angered by the act. 

"Expressions of hatred are abhorrent," Minow wrote. "Here at HLS, we are focused on efforts to improve our community, examining structures that may contribute to negative experiences of any members of our community, and pursuing opportunities where the School can both change and support change."

In a blog post, Harvard's Black Lives Matter group promised to respond the vandalism.

“What we do next,” Harvard Law student Michele Hall wrote in the post, “will shake white supremacy at Harvard Law School to its core.”

This comes as campus unrest has led to the resignation of the University of Missouri system’s president and the chancellor of its main campus. Last week, amid protests the dean of students at Claremont McKenna College in California stepped down.

UPDATE: November 20, 2015 12:34: On Friday morning, Harvard President Drew Faust made the following statement on the incident at Harvard Law School:

"We join together as a university in deploring the defacing of portraits of African American faculty at the law school.  Such acts of hatred are inimical t0 our most fundamental values and represent an assualt on the mutual respect essential to our purposes as a community of learning and inquiry."

Related: Local Students Show Support for Students at University of Missouri

Greater Boston: Harvard Law Professor Ron Sullivan Discusses Vandalism Incident

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