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Brown calls on Harvard to 'correct record' on Elizabeth Warren's heritage

Sen. Scott Brown wants to know why Harvard listed his rival, Elizabeth Warren, as a native American professor. The issue has not tipped the race yet, but it could, the Brown camp says.

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One loose end in the saga is very basic: Does Warren really have native American roots? She grew up in Oklahoma, a state where a goodly number of residents have a trace or more of Indian ancestry.

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But Warren has provided no documentary evidence, and genealogists at the New England Historic Genealogical Society have backed away from their recent claim to have documentation suggesting that her great-great-great-grandmother was a Cherokee, which would have made Warren 1/32 native American. 

In an interview Thursday reported by MassLive.com, Warren said “I am proud of my family and I am proud of my heritage.” When a reporter asked how she knows she has Indian heritage, she said: “Because my mother told me so. This is how I live. My mother, my grandmother, my family. This is my family. Scott Brown has launched attacks on my family. I am not backing off from my family.”

Some people familiar with the academic world say Warren's account of her actions is credible, while others say the more plausible explanation is that she was trying to advance her career.

When a scholar rises to being considered for hiring by top law schools, "everybody they're looking at is completely qualified," says William Jacobson, a Cornell University law professor who blogs at LegalInsurrection.com. Being a woman and a minority could set Warren apart. And at the time that Harvard recruited Warren, the law school was under intense pressure to boost diversity on its faculty, says Jacobson, who got his law degree at Harvard in the 1980s.

Even if the her ancestry didn't come up directly in the hiring process, Warren could have benefited from others' perception that she had minority status, he adds.

While at the University of Pennsylvania, Warren made "frequent claims of Native American heritage" which were common knowledge there, the conservative news website Breitbart reported on Friday. The article quoted Penn faculty members on this point.

Whatever the impetus, Harvard referred to her as a minority member of the faculty in the 1990s.

"For at least six straight years during Warren’s tenure, Harvard University reported in federally mandated diversity statistics that it had a Native American woman in its senior ranks at the law school," Boston Globe reporter Mary Carmichael wrote in the Friday story.

"According to both Harvard officials and federal guidelines, those statistics are almost always based on the way employees describe themselves," she wrote, adding that, occasionally, administrators can make judgment calls based on "employment records or observer identification."

The Globe said a 1999 Harvard document on affirmative action, which lists a native American woman on the law faculty, defines native American in a way that Warren doesn't appear to fit: as “a person having origins in any of the original peoples of North America and who maintains cultural identification through tribal affiliation or community recognition."

If it's true that Harvard improperly identified Warren as a native American, Mr. Jacobson says, then Brown appears to be on solid ground in suggesting that the university has an obligation to correct its federal-filing records.

This week's poll of Massachusetts voters, by Suffolk University and 7News, suggests that the questions about Warren's minority status haven't pushed Brown ahead in the race so far. But the Brown campaign says the poll shows the senator with a clear lead over Warren among people who are aware of the controversy.

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