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.

By , Staff writer

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    Democratic candidate for the Senate, Elizabeth Warren, answers questions on her claim of native American heritage in a briefing with reporters while campaigning at Liberty Bay Credit Union headquarters in Braintree, Mass., earlier this month.
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Sen. Scott Brown (R) of Massachusetts said Friday that Harvard Law School should "correct the record" regarding its past listing of Elizabeth Warren, his Senate-race rival, as a minority faculty member.

The issue has emerged as a controversy in recent weeks in what is shaping up to be the nation's top Senate race, as it became known that Ms. Warren had in the past classified herself as native American, based on a self-avowed ancestral connection, although she claims no current affiliation with an Indian community.

"The Boston Globe today has a story that states that Harvard may have violated federal guidelines in the reporting of diversity information because of what Elizabeth Warren told them," Senator Brown said in a statement released by his campaign. "I call on Harvard President Faust to immediately correct the record with the relevant federal agencies and uphold Harvard's 400-year-old tradition of abiding by the truth."

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The freshman senator's nudge to Harvard comes after his campaign has also issued calls for Warren herself to "come clean" on the matter.

So far, important details on the issue remain murky, in part because Warren has not asked her employers (at Harvard and, before that, at the University of Pennsylvania) to release personnel records related to her hiring. Here are some things that are known: She placed herself on a list of "minority" law professors in a national directory of law schools during the 1980s and early '90s, and Harvard claimed she was a native American faculty member, but by the late 1990s she had dropped her name from the directory's minority listing.

While the two rivals are campaigning on numerous policy differences, the question of Warren's self-listing as a minority has become the campaign's most prominent issue that touches on personal character and credibility. The question takes on added significance because Warren has built her public persona in part by pushing for greater accountability by Wall Street banks. Her critics, including some Democrats, say she has failed to show accountability herself.

A poll this week showed the two candidates virtually equal in their support from likely voters in Massachusetts. Warren must also win the Democratic nomination in a Sept. 6 primary, and so far is running far ahead of challenger Marisa DeFranco, an immigration lawyer.

In Friday's statement, Brown pushed back against Warren for implying that he's raising a nonissue. "This Native American controversy is a problem of Elizabeth Warren's own making. She falsely described herself as a minority and some of the schools where she worked relied on that information to misrepresent the diversity of their faculty," Brown said.

Warren has said she did not seek to use minority status for advantage when seeking teaching jobs, including at Harvard. She has said she wasn't aware of being viewed as a minority hire until she saw it in recent news reports.

"I listed myself in the directory in the hopes that it might mean that I would be invited to a luncheon, a group, something that might happen with people who are like I am," Warren said on May 2, according to a report in the Boston Herald the next day. "Nothing like that ever happened, that was clearly not the use for it, and so I stopped checking it off."

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.

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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