The professor of law and legal philosophy at Hampshire College introduced his students to Soviet dissidents and the works of “Dead White European Males,” whose thinking he celebrated even as these authors became less fashionable among their left-wing peers.
Lester Mazor, one of the founding teachers at the Amherst, Mass., campus, came across as lively and sharp, even “revolutionary,” one person who came under his instruction said.
Yet, he also crossed lines, according to an internal investigation that concluded that he had acted inappropriately to a female student four decades ago, according to an announcement from the college last week.
Colleges and universities, just like banks, the military, the media and the medical field, have grown familiar with disciplining charismatic figures who collect accolades and admirers and yet also misbehave, sometimes egregiously. Institutions including the United States Senate, have had lessons in adjudicating accusations from many years ago, as evidence dries up and memory fades.
But there’s a difference in this case. The professor is dead. Mazor, who taught at Hampshire from its founding in 1970 until 2007, died in 2011.
“Lester was one of the chief influences in my choosing a legal career,” Sigmund Roos, chair of the college’s board of trustees at the time, said in an obituary. “He was really an amazing teacher, and someone who even as he was teaching was always learning.”
That tribute now stands at odds with the stance of the board of trustees, which had to decide this semester what to do with the legacy of a man unable to answer the accusations against him. College leaders have issued a formal apology to the alumna who came forward recently to complain of “inappropriate behavior in the 1970s,” according to a letter from Hampshire’s president, Miriam Nelson, which was addressed to the college community last week. Its subject was “Historical Harassment.”
An inquest by the college, Nelson wrote, “concluded that more likely than not the inappropriate behavior occurred.” The letter did not describe the nature of the alleged offense, but a September report from a committee on “Historical Complaints of Sexual Harassment” said its work began after the college’s former president, Jonathan Lash, who stepped down in June of this year, received a complaint from a graduate about decades-old “harassment” by a faculty member. She had gone to college representatives in the years since she left Hampshire, “but as far as she was aware there had been no follow-up on her complaint,” states the report, which does not name Mazor.
The college concluded that the alumna may not have been alone.
“During the investigation the College heard other allegations of inappropriate behavior, suggesting that this was not an isolated incident,” wrote Nelson, who co-signed last week’s letter with a vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty, Eva Rueschmann.
Trustees met to review the findings and chose to apologize to the alumna.
“We recognize how difficult it is to revisit painful occurrences, and we respect our alumna’s courage in coming forward to share them,” the letter stated.
The more vexing question was what to do with the professor’s legacy — with the room on campus named for him, as well as the fund endowed in his name.
“Professor Mazor,” the administrators wrote, “cannot defend himself.” What’s more, they said, “these actions date from decades ago.”
Nevertheless, the college chose to remove Mazor’s name from the room and the fund created in his memory.
While some “may call into question the College’s actions,” the administrators wrote, the liberal arts college could leave no doubt about where it stood on issues of harassment brought to light by the #MeToo movement. Even, they suggested, when the light exposed someone who was no longer living.
“This era has brought long-needed attention to issues of sexual harassment and we want there to be no confusion at Hampshire over what behaviors were and are inappropriate,” the administrators affirmed. “We take our roles as educators, mentors, and role models very seriously and apologize that a member of our faculty apparently did not do so, regardless of the era.”
They added that the college was in the process of updating its policies on sexual harassment to account for this novel circumstance.
An article in the Daily Hampshire Gazette documented the controversy, seven years after an obituary for Mazor had appeared in its pages. The item from 2011 noted that Mazor had died peacefully in Berlin, where he had moved after retiring in 2007.
The professor was born in Chicago and grew up in Oakland, Calif. He studied history at Stanford University and then attended its law school. Mazor clerked on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit for Warren E. Burger, later chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1962, Mazor became “the youngest law professor in the nation,” according to his obituary, when he joined the faculty at the University of Utah in his mid-20s. Eight years later, he moved to Amherst to begin teaching at Hampshire.
The professor, whose courses spanned history and social justice, established the college’s program in Berlin. He was also a permanent visiting professor at Anhui University in Hefei, China, as well as a visiting professor at Budapest’s Central European University, the school founded by George Soros that was driven out of Hungary this week by the country’s authoritarian prime minister, Viktor Orban.
A tribute by a former student on the occasion of Mazor’s death testified to the professor’s charisma, but also included hints of a sometimes-overbearing personality. The student wrote of the “enigmatic psychic space” inhabited by the professor, which “made it hard to tell what he really thought.” The eulogy called him “revolutionary” but also “calm and sometimes paternal.”
“He made the system at Hampshire work for him, and he used it to attract and build out programs and student participants across the spectrum of his and their mutual interests,” the tribute noted. And he pressed his students to do the same. When they expressed an interest in Kafka, he didn’t just suggest they read “The Metamorphosis” or “The Trial.” He encouraged them to teach their own class on the 20th-century novelist.
The college’s review has now found that at the same time that he was captivating students, he was developing a pattern of improper behavior. While his offenses weren’t disclosed, Hampshire’s policy on sexual misconduct forbids a range of behaviors, from sexual assault to gender-based harassment and stalking. The college “strongly discourages” romantic relationships between faculty and students, though only expressly forbids them if there is a supervisory dimension.
The September report urged college leaders to considering prohibiting such relationships, or at least “to make the risks and responsibilities more explicit.”
The liberal arts college amended its policies in February of this year after three years under review by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Many colleges and universities have come under scrutiny in recent years related to compliance with Title IX, the federal civil rights law that bars gender discrimination in education programs that receive government money.
“I want to recognize the #MeToo movement for bringing to light the experiences of millions who have been subjected to inappropriate and illegal behaviors that occurred in the past, mostly from individuals who were in a position of power or influence over their careers,” wrote Lash, the college president at the time, in announcing the changes. “I salute the bravery of those who are speaking out. They will change our culture for the better.”
Hampshire has been buffeted by other forces in the culture wars. In November 2016, it temporarily stopped flying the American flag after the red, white and blue banner at the center of campus was burned following the election of Donald Trump. Hundreds protested the decision not to hoist the banner. The following month, the college announced that it was again flying the American flag, saying it had intended no “offense to veterans, military families, or others for whom the flag represents service and sacrifice."
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