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In remembrance of Lani Guinier, former Law School professor and pioneering civil rights advocate

January 11, 2022

The Law School remembers and honors the legacy of Lani Guinier, who taught here from 1988 and 1998 and passed away on Friday, January 7, 2022.

With heavy hearts, the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School joins others in legal academia and the profession as a whole in mourning the passing and honoring the remarkable legacy of Lani Guinier, a brilliant and influential scholar and lawyer.

Guinier was a faculty member at the Law School for 10 years, from 1988 to 1998, and inspired students in our classrooms as she produced some of her most authoritative scholarship.

Dean Emeritus Colin Diver, who served as the dean of the Law School from 1989 to 1999, recalls Guinier’s unequivocal commitment to civil rights and racial justice.

Lani Guinier in the Law School's yearbook The Report, 1998 Lani Guinier in the Law School's yearbook The Report, 1998“During Lani’s 10-year tenure at Penn Law, Lani pushed the envelope in many important and constructive ways: advocating for alternative voting methods, such as cumulative voting, questioning the implicit expectations of law school faculty that female students behave like ‘gentlemen,’ or proposing alternative methods for evaluating and selecting applicants to the Law School,” Diver said. “As a scholar, teacher, and public intellectual, she made immense and lasting contributions.”

Current Dean and Bernard G. Segal Professor of Law Ted Ruger emphasized the lasting impact of Guinier’s work, noting that “Professor Guinier’s work illuminated fundamental tensions and fractures in our democracy and suggested innovative reforms; her work is as relevant today as it was when first published.”

Prior to joining the Law School faculty, Guinier began her lifelong career advancing civil rights in the Civil Rights Division of the Office of the Assistant Attorney General Drew S. Days. She then joined the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, where she led the voting rights project with adept litigatory tenacity, winning 31 out of the 32 cases she argued.

During her tenure at Penn, Guinier produced research that transgressed the bounds of contemporary civil rights scholarship. In 1993, she was nominated for Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights by President Bill Clinton, but strong conservative backlash to her extensive work and articulated views on voting rights and social reforms prompted President Clinton to withdraw the nomination. Her 1994 article “Becoming Gentlemen: Women’s Experiences at One Ivy League Law School,” published in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, attracted both attention and debate throughout the legal academic community and continues to be cited in contemporary discussions pertaining to the persistence — and necessary dismantling — of harmful patriarchal norms in the legal academy and profession.

In 1998, Guinier become the first tenured woman of color at Harvard Law School, where she taught until 2017. While at Harvard, she became the first Black woman to have the prestigious honor of writing the Foreword for the Harvard Law Review. In addition to her faculty positions at Penn and Harvard, Guinier delivered lectures at several other prestigious legal institutions across the country, leaving a lasting impact on generations of students and colleagues alike.

Senior Adjunct Professor of Global Leadership and Associate Dean of International Affairs Rangita de Silva de Alwis remembers inviting Guinier to Washington, D.C., to speak on electoral reform and pluralism to a group of women parliamentarians from countries in democratic transition.

“In that audience were two young parliamentarians, Naheed Farid from Afghanistan and Dr. Alma Lana from Kosovo. In a Pashtun-led legislative assembly, Naheed was an ethnic minority. In an Albanian-led parliament, Alma was an ethnic minority,” said de Silva de Alwis. “The U.S. government does not always understand the complexity of ethnic identity in the different communities it seeks to help, but Lani Guinier did. Even in her death, her work will continue to have impact on nations seeking to strengthen their democracies and in classrooms studying the nature of bias.”

Students in de Silva de Alwis’s “Women, Law, and Leadership” course study and discuss the lasting relevance of Guinier’s revolutionary scholarship.

“I am so grateful that the class on ‘Women, Law and Leadership’ gave us, students, the opportunity to study Professor Guinier’s work and scholarship. Professor Lani Guinier’s work, particularly her groundbreaking scholarship, ‘Becoming Gentlemen: Women’s Experiences at One Ivy League Law School,’ paved the way for Black women like me to exist and feel seen in these legal spaces,” said President of the Black Law Students Association Simone Hunter- Hobson L’23. “Her scholarship’s commitment to centering women’s voices and experiences remained a focal point for my work in Professor de Silva de Alwis’s course and inspired me to think about how crucial it is to put Black women’s stories at the forefront of legal scholarship.”

Guinier  once referred to her commitment to civil rights — and voting rights in particular — as both her professional and spiritual work and authored six books, over 40 articles, and dozens of editorial pieces throughout her career. She also earned 11 honorary degrees and numerous awards for her uncompromising advocacy, including among them the NAACP Legal Defense Fund William H. Hastie Award in 1993; the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania’s 14th Annual Civil Liberties Award in 1995; and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law of the Boston Bar Association’s Leadership Award in 2002.

Guinier’s influence on this institution and the legal profession was immense and touched many. As an ardent litigator, a dynamic advocate, and a trailblazing academic, Guinier was unafraid to stand firm behind the principles of democracy, equality, and equity that underpin the essence of what it means to fight for justice in America. As we remember her, we also reaffirm our commitment to those same principles and strive to honor her by prioritizing civil rights and racial justice within our classrooms and, more broadly, within the laws we work tirelessly to uphold and advance.

Read Guinier’s seminal article “Becoming Gentleman: Women’s Experiences at One Ivy league Law School.

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“I met Lani Guinier in 1979 or 1980, before I went to law school. We socialized a bit. When I became a law professor she and I both participated actively in ‘The Northeast Corridor Black Women Law Professors’ Collective.’ For a time there were so few of us black women teaching law that we could meet in one another’s living rooms. The Collective was a way for us to share our teaching, our scholarship, and our professional struggles and joys. It’s astonishing that our numbers are so large now, just 3 decades later, that we mostly have stopped counting. More than a few black women are tenured, chaired full professors, and many are or have been Deans and Provosts.

I vividly remember the episode that brought Lani to national attention. President Clinton nominated her and then withdrew her nomination for a top position in the Justice Department. Because of her progressive ideas, Lani was viciously and unfairly attacked. She was characterized as a ‘welfare queen;’ and as someone with ‘weird hair and weird ideas.’ Clinton should have stood firm.

When Lani decided to leave Penn and take the job at Harvard Law that would make her the school’s first black woman law professor put her closer to her lovely mother who lived in Cambridge (whom I had met through Derrick Bell in the early 1990s), she advised me not to come to Penn. Although she was correct that the faculty climate of Penn Law could be toxic in 1998, I saw an opportunity to help make a good school better. I am glad I came to Penn. For many years, I occupied the very office in Silverman Hall that Lani vacated when she left Penn. Her spirit stayed with me, along with the coffee mug bearing her name that she left behind on an old wooden desk. Lani and I remained professional friends, and I admired from afar as she navigated her many roles: feminist, critical race theorist, voting rights expert, mother, wife, caring daughter. When I last spoke to Lani she had retired to Cape Cod. Gracious and witty as ever, she had good, proud things to say about her son. She was no longer able to recall me or the Collective. ‘Send me a picture,’ she said, with earnest warmth in her voice.”

- Anita L. Allen (Henry R. Silverman Professor of Law and Professor of Philosophy)

Prof. Lani Guinier was brilliant. Her voting rights class – which I was too afraid to take! – was reputed to be one of the hardest offered by the Law School. Her seminar – which I did take! – deftly guided students from diverse racial, ethnic, political and socio-economic backgrounds through complex – and often personal – discussions of race and the law. She was tough. Her expectations were sky high. And, through her personal example, she taught me (and countless others) that we had a space, a voice and a perspective in the practice of law that we had a right and duty to occupy. 

- Christina Swarns L’93

“I owe my entire career as an academic to Lani Guinier and her colleague Susan Sturm, who were such a tight pair at Penn Law in the 90s. Lani was so masterful in her ‘Law & Political Process Class,’ spelling out for us the arc of civil rights and how central voting was in that story in her usual brilliant but modest fashion. I remember discovering that she herself argued one of the central cases on my own when I looked up the fuller version in the library and her name was listed arguing it. Lani was an incredible innovator in pedagogy, using novel class-flipping techniques in her ‘Race & Gender’ seminar with Susan Sturm. That class has been the script for much of my academic career. Lani coached me on my student presentation in the class. I chose to do it on RuPaul’s Back to My Roots, which was about Black hair. I was wearing dresses and skirts and at that time, it was more than unusual to be outside the gender binary. Lani embraced me in all my creative sloppiness. Sure, she still pushed me gently to spell things out but never put a toe to squash any of my creativity. She (and Susan, and Regina Austin, and Gary Clinton, among others) made me feel seen and accepted for who I was at Penn Law, which made room for me to be myself. Her compassion and support for my work on LGBT voting rights was unparalleled - I wrote a paper for her that ended up in publication at Harvard CRCL & at Howard. She was a teacher, an idea-generator, and a cheerleader and all flawlessly. She was the rock for our progressive crew at Penn Law when that was a small minority. She had us to her home and even modeled principled loving parenting for me. My greatest dream would be to be even half the teacher she was.” 

- Darren Rosenblum L’95

Lani Guinier celebrating her birthday with students and Prof. Susan Sturm For many of us who graduated 25+ years ago, we will always remember that one professor who made a profound impact on our careers and shaped what kind of lawyers we became. For me, that was Professor Guinier. Her teachings in her Race and Gender class coupled with the Voting Rights class made what seemed like a terrible mistake to attend law school into an incredible opportunity to enact change. She clarified difficult issues in the simplest of terms and supported our small group of like-minded social justice warriors. Thank you dear Professor Lani for your love, energy and commitment to the cause, I will never forget you.”

- Michelle Lee Kim L’95

“It will be difficult to replace Lani. Having known her and cherishing such wonderful memories is an honor. During my early career, Lani was both a friend and a mentor to me.

She was my law professor when I attended the University of Pennsylvania. The summer before I graduated, I became her law clerk and that’s when I really got to know her.

Known for challenging traditional thinking, she also liked to be challenged herself. She was brilliant, but many did not know she was also hilarious!

She was so wonderful to join me and my family for my law school graduation celebration dinner. This was the last time I saw her in person. Unfortunately, we lost touch after she moved from Pennsylvania to Harvard. This was nearly 20 years ago.

In the last year, I thought about her and tried to reconnect, but to no avail. After learning about the health challenges she faced at the time of her death, I now understand why. Rest in peace, Lani.”

- Nicole Perkins L’96

“Lani Guinier was larger than life as a legal scholar, teacher, and colleague. She came to Penn Law with a portfolio built on a successful career as a civil rights advocate and voting rights practitioner and turned it into the basis for groundbreaking interdisciplinary work in law and political theory. In addition, her magnetic personality and infectious creativity made her an innovative teacher and inspirational mentor. I doubt that today’s young women law students, even those of color, can imagine how tough it was to be a progressive Black female law professor at a top-tier school back in the 80s and 90s. Acceptance and tenure were not guaranteed. Nevertheless, Lani rose above the barriers and moved on to Harvard Law, where she claimed her birthright.”

- Regina Austin L’73 (William A. Schnader Professor Emerita)

“I can say ALL the good things about Professor Guinier without reservation. She was good people.

Her integrity was unquestionable. Even her voice, its tone, possessed the ring of truth. You could hear it when she spoke of matters for which she held a passion – justice, equal treatment under the law, human rights, voting rights,, education. She worked hard and was always helping people. She respected people. She wanted everyone to get their fair share, their say, their opportunity. She was deeply compassionate, unafraid and could hold a graceful demeanor even in the face of hostility and ignorance. She believed in people and demanded accountability. She was also very stylish, beautiful, and brilliant with a wicked sense of humor. I had no idea how funny she was until I began to work for her. Professor Guinier had swag and light. I count it a blessing to have been her student and research assistant. I only knew her for a short while in a limited capacity, yet the light of her example will continue to shine in my memories of an awesome teacher and human being.”

- Wendy Norris L’95