The cultural climate at Harvard Law School when Elizabeth Warren was hired is crucial to understanding why the Massachusetts senator’s attempt to back her claim of Native American identity matters, according to a former student who was at the fabled institution at the time.

Jennifer Braceras, now a senior fellow with the Independent Women’s Forumwrote in the Weekly Standard that in the early 1990s, Harvard Law School “was a hotbed of left-wing agitation.”

“I was there and remember well the explosive protests and sit-ins that erupted over a lack of diversity on the faculty,” she said.

Braceras recalled that in April 1992, protesters demonstrated outside the dean’s office, and Braceras’ closest friend was among the “Griswold 9” who refused to leave the dean’s office for more than 25 hours.

Their demand was that the administration add a “woman of color” to the faculty.

The following year, Warren, then a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, came to Harvard to teach on a trial basis.

“During this time, Warren categorized herself as Native American and was deemed a minority in a professional directory used by law schools for recruiting purposes, Braceras wrote. “Warren says she classified herself this way to meet other Native Americans. That may be true; it must also have had the effect of catching the attention of hiring committees at prestigious law schools.”

Braceras acknowledged that, as the Boston Globe reported, members of the faculty committee who decided on hiring her as a tenured professor have said her claim to Native American heritage never came up in their deliberations.

“But, of course, it didn’t have to. At that point, her purported ethnicity was a matter of record,” she wrote.

Braceras noted it’s unusual for Harvard to make offers of tenure to professors who began their academic careers at Rutgers.

“To be sure, Warren had worked her way up to a tenured position at Penn, another Ivy League school. And there is no question that she was a much-loved teacher. But in that highly-charged political climate, being Native American could only have helped.”

Braceras said that once at Harvard, Warren quickly developed a reputation as an engaging and committed teacher.

“Students of all political stripes flocked to her classes. I was one of them. She was, I can attest, an excellent professor,” she said.

What is certain, Braceras continued, is that once Warren joined the faculty, Harvard touted her minority status, listing her as a minority in internal documents and compliance reports and telling the Harvard Crimson that the law school had a Native American female on the faculty.

Matter of public concern

Warren on Monday released to great fanfare a DNA test that she thought would put to rest the controversy over her claimed Native American ancestry. But the analysis only dug her hole deeper, finding she had an indigenous ancestor “in the range of 6-10 generations ago,” meaning she is as little as 1/1024th Native American. Further, it is unclear whether the DNA strain comes from an indigenous ancestor in North or South America.

As Braceras noted, it makes her claim to be part Cherokee and part Delaware highly unreliable.

She wrote that Warren’s mother may have earnestly told tales of a Native American ancestor in her family tree, but “such tales belong in the realm of family lore, not in the realm of racial preferences.”

“The reason we are talking about Elizabeth Warren’s ancestry today – more than six years after the story originally broke – is because she used this family story to boost her chances of obtaining teaching jobs at a time when elite law schools were desperate to hire racial and ethnic minorities. Harvard Law School was no exception.”

She argued it’s a matter of public concern.

“If racial preferences should be considered in university hiring and college admissions, which applicants count as racial or ethnic minorities?” she asked.

“Does anyone with a smidgen of minority heritage count? Should schools count Asian Americans? Native Americans? Latinos? Or should they concern themselves only with blacks, because of their unique history as part of America’s slave-owning past?”