Vinay Harpalani

Tributes in Memory of Professor Derrick Bell

Vinay Harpalani, NYU Law ’09
Derrick Bell Fellow ‘09-10
October 16, 2011

People around the world know Professor Derrick Bell as a scholar — one of the founding figures in Critical Race Theory — and as an activist — a leader who would make sacrifices for just causes, as he did many times during his career. But I learned, through working with him, that what Professor Bell enjoyed most was teaching his classes, and he was most proud of his accomplishments as a teacher.

The hundreds of former students whom he mentored and kept in touch with—for decades after they graduated from law school—are a testament to his impact as a teacher and mentor. Even after I had read his books and felt inspired by his protests, Professor Bell taught me how far basic kindness and humility can extend in our hyper-competitive legal, political, and academic worlds. I was fortunate enough not only to take a class with Professor Bell, but also to serve as the last Derrick Bell Fellow in 2009-10. I helped to organize and teach his classes that year, and I witnessed firsthand how Professor Bell’s sacrifices extended right into the classroom. Each class, he would step aside and have students argue the cases we were covering. He allowed students to express their views on the case at hand, or on any other issue of national or international importance. To be sure, Professor Bell would inject his wisdom into the discussion, commenting on student writings or asking tough questions during arguments. He would also occasionally tell an entertaining story from his life experiences—usually a personal anecdote about family, religion, or relationships. Professor Bell always said that he wanted to “humanize the law school experience” – and he brought food, song, and entertainment into the classroom along with vigorous intellectual debate and life lessons. But it is surprising how little Professor Bell talked about his own accomplishments. There was the occasional mention of his protests at Oregon and Harvard, and students were aware of his eminence through other sources. However, Professor Bell’s classes were always student-centered. More than anything else, he wanted students to feel empowered, not only to learn and practice law, but also to challenge authority and stand up for their beliefs. In fact, there is nothing Professor Bell respected more than when students would challenge him directly, in opposition to their classmates. Although he was never shy about expressing his own views in class, Professor Bell never expected students to conform to his positions. He encouraged and invited dissent, and some of his best students and Teaching Assistants were those who held very different political views than ones for which he was well known.

Professor Bell loved teaching more than anything else, and he kept going to class until the week before he passed away. He inspired many students to work for social change and to reach their full potential in all aspects of their lives. And while he will rightfully be remembered for his scholarship and activism, it is Professor Derrick Bell, the teacher, who has had the most salient and lasting impact on all of us.