Yes, it's preposterous on it's face: black students at Harvard Law School boycotting a civil rights course to be taught by two visiting superstar civil rights attorneys, because one of the attorneys is white. The uproar from all over has been remarkable to those of us who are always surprised to see how much attention the real world pays to events in Cambridge. But as you might imagine, things are more complicated than they appear.

First, my abbreviated version of the "facts." For several years, Harvard's first tenured black law professor taught a successful course on race, racism and the law. But when Derrick Bell left in December 1980 to become dean of Oregon's law school, black students and some others began pressing the faculty to ensure both that Bell's course be continued in some manner and that the one black who was left among some 65 professors did not remain in solitary splendor. No problem, so far. Within a couple of months, in the spring of 1981, the faculty's continuing but desultory hiring process actually produced offers to three young blacks. I accepted; the other two needed more time to think.

So, this past year, my first as an untenured assistant professor, there were two of us on the faculty. There was no course analogous to Bell's, but others covered some of that material. Throughout the year, students became increasingly concerned that there was no convincing faculty commitment either to the course or to minority hiring. Of the two minority job offers still outstanding, one person foolishly decided to go teach at Yale, and the other continued to play hard to get -- the students were, as always, told virtually nothing about what was going on. And the faculty had a series of discussions about having visitors teach a course on race, but those discussions occurred rather late in the year, leaving little maneuvering room for the dean and his advisers to solve the course coverage problem for this coming year.

Ultimately, the faculty approved a list of possible visiting instructors to teach the course during the school's intensive January semester, in which a full course is compressed into three weeks, meeting every day and occupying the students' full credit load for that mini-semester. (It's often a more practical teaching schedule for visiting teachers with regular employment elsewhere, like judges and lawyers.) Dean James Vorenberg, himself a member of the board of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF), asked Julius LeVonne Chambers, LDF president, to teach the course. Chambers, who is black, is a legendary figure among civil rights attorneys of this or any generation, having handled countless major cases, including several landmark Supreme Court cases. Chambers considered, but decided his schedule would not allow him to take on the whole burden, and suggested that Jack Greenberg, who is white, be appointed to teach the course jointly. Greenberg, director-counsel of LDF, has been the chief executive officer of LDF since succeeding Thurgood Marshall in 1961 and, like Chambers, has been a major figure in civil rights litigation since the dawn of the modern movement. The dean agreed to the package deal, and many of us were excited at the prospect of a course covering four areas that these two towering figures have been absolutely central in shaping: school desegregation, voting rights, capital punishment and employment rights. The plot thickens.

Meanwhile, on the appointments front, the school announced a slew of white male appointments for the coming year, with no apparent progress on minority hiring. By the end of the spring, the Chambers-Greenberg package was arranged, but when the black students heard about it, many of them were dismayed. There were several reactions -- and remember that this is a collection of some 140 people, not a monolithic political cell: anger that the best the faculty seemed able or willing to do on the hiring front was to appoint a temporary visitor, Chambers, who is avowedly uninterested in being considered for a regular professorial appointment; anger that there was no solution to the problem of finding a regular faculty member to teach a course on race and the law, only this stop-gap measure for 1982-83; anger that the school felt it necessary to hire a white instructor for a course black students felt was a particularly natural target for minority hiring, and which they felt would be more suited to their needs if taught by a minority instructor (more on this later).

After internal discussions, the Black Law Students Association decided to organize a boycott of the Chambers-Greenberg course for early September when students return to Cambridge and register for their full year of courses. But this all occurred as May exams were getting under way, and there was no time for it to develop into a great cause for the whole community. There was, however, time for the faculty to think about the boycott and the reasons BLSA gave for it. Their reaction was to focus on BLSA's personalized attack on Greenberg and his participation in the course, attacks that many on the faculty feel violated basic principles of academic freedom as well as the liberal integrationist ethic -- the idea that someone otherwise superbly qualified to teach a course should be barred because of ideology or especially race is anathema.

Beyond this, however, the manner in which the students framed their justification for a boycott did little to call attention to their essential objections: hiring part-time people is an unacceptable way of dealing with the need for more minority faculty members and for course offerings concerning problems of race. A further argument, admittedly more problematic to many, is that a course on racism taught by a white will probably be different from a similar course taught by a black; the students want at least the latter, and will not settle for the former alone -- nor, they insisted, for the Chambers- Greenberg joint venture, which they viewed as a half-measure.

All of this became a matter of public discussion when the dean sent a mid-summer letter to the entire student body that, in a sense, warned them that this controversy would await them in September. He enclosed the basic exchange of correspondence between BLSA, Chambers and Greenberg.

It is important to discern what this controversy is not about. It is not, despite ill-considered words by some students, about whether Chambers and Greenberg have done great things for civilization or are capable of teaching an inspiring course: anyone who would doubt those propositions is just stupid, in my view, and should be ignored. Nor is it a controversy about race as a criterion for selecting faculty members in the abstract, because no one I have spoken to at Harvard argues that certain subjects should only be taught by people with a particular complexion, ethnicity, political persuasion or configuration of reproductive organs. And finally, this is not a controversy about either the need for more than two minority professors at the huge Harvard Law School, or the need for courses concerned with problems of minorities. On all of these matters, there is consensus if not unanimity. That is a tribute to all of the members of that community, and certainly could not have been said a few short years ago. (In late spring, by the way, the unanswered minority job offer was finally accepted, and an offer was made to an additional person, who has all but accepted. So it now seems likely that in 1983-84 the number of minority faculty will double from two to four. Students have yet to be fully informed about the details of these developments.)

There is, however, an important debate about whether race should be a consideration when the school matches instructors to course offerings. It is not dissimilar to the question of assigning minority and white reporters to different stories at a newspaper, or matching Foreign Service officers to diplomatic posts. Do the precepts of academic freedom and liberalism mean that curricular and teaching decisions should be colorblind?

Well, ideally, but not now. DuBois was right about the continuing importance of race in this century, and students and practitioners of law should be among the first to recognize that. Race remains a useful proxy for a whole collection of experiences, aspirations and sensitivities, in at least as strong a way as anyone's ethnic heritage or professional experiences shape the way he understands and explains life. It's not just a matter of having a particular slant on things; it's a question of what kind of glasses you've been wearing as the years roll by.

There is no question that I teach administrative law the way I do in part because of my experiences in government and my training as a policy analyst; a colleague teaches corporate finance the way he does in part because his many years of experience as a practitioner give him a perspective on what is really important in the field, and how it should be handled. There is a familiar expression: "you are what you eat." It is similarly true that we teach what we have lived, and this may be particularly true in a field like law, which is, after all, about life and how it is or ought to be ordered.

Greenberg and Chambers have been idols of mine since I was a very small kid. Many is the night I've paced around tangled in frustration because it seems so incredibly unlikely that in my life I will be able to make anything remotely approaching the magnitude of their contribution to the cause of justice for black Americans. But it is undeniable, though ironic, that despite their accomplishments race still matters a great deal. And for some subjects, the courses will probably be different, and certainly be perceived as being different, when taught by a white rather than a black. Both courses could be valuable. Both, for now, may be necessary.