Lani Guinier, the first woman of color to be a tenured Harvard Law professor, died on January 7 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. She was 71 years old.
“Lani Guinier was a giant — a historic figure in American law and in the life of our Law School. Her scholarship changed our understanding of democracy — of why and how the voices of the historically underrepresented must be heard and what it takes to have a meaningful right to vote,” said John F. Manning, the Morgan and Helen Chu Dean and Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. “Lani devoted her life to justice, equality, empowerment, and democracy and made the world better as a result. Her voice, her wisdom, her integrity, her bravery, her caring for others, her imagination and rigorous thinking, and her unerring sense of justice will inspire those who knew her and those who come to know of her life and legacy in the years to come.”
Professor Guinier was born in New York City, the daughter of civil rights activist Eugenia Paprin and Ewart Guinier, a lawyer and union organizer of Jamaican descent. Her father attended Harvard College in 1929, the only Black student at the college at the time, and later taught at Harvard, serving as the first chair of the department of Afro-American studies.
Professor Guinier earned a bachelor’s degree from Radcliffe College in 1971 and a juris doctorate from Yale Law School in 1974. After law school, she clerked for Damon Keith, then chief judge of the U.S. District Court for Eastern Michigan. She went on to serve as special assistant to Assistant Attorney General Drew S. Days in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department during the Carter administration. She also led the voting rights project for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
In 1988, Professor Guinier joined the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania Law School and taught there for a decade. During this period, she was nominated for assistant attorney general for civil rights by President Bill Clinton. After a media controversy that labeled her the “Quota Queen,” President Clinton withdrew the nomination which drew major criticism from members of his own party.
Professor Guinier joined the faculty at Harvard Law School in 1998 and served as the Bennett Boskey Professor of Law.
She was the author of several books including The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America (Beacon Press, 2015) and co-author of The Miner’s Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy (Harvard University Press, 2002).