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First African-American Woman Named to Harvard Corporation

By Marcella Bombardieri

Harvard University for the first time named an African-American woman, legal scholar Patricia A. King, to serve on its governing corporation on Sunday.

King, a specialist on biomedical law and ethics at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C., will replace Conrad K. Harper, who resigned in July after pressing the corporation to deny a pay raise to Harvard’s president, Lawrence H. Summers ’75, after Summers publicly speculated that women may not have the same ‘’intrinsic aptitude” for science as men.

In his resignation letter, Harper, an attorney, had said the university’s “best interests” would be served by Summers’s resignation, and said Summers had demeaned groups underrepresented in academia, including women and blacks.

Reached Sunday night, Harper said he thinks highly of King. “I am glad that Harvard will have the benefit of her wisdom and experience.”

The choice of Harper’s replacement was eagerly anticipated, both because he had been critical of Summers and because he had been the only racial minority on the board, which has seven members, including Summers. Yesterday’s announcement was received with enthusiasm.

“She won’t toe anyone’s party line — she’s a rigorous, independent thinker,” said Henry Louis Gates Jr., chairman of African and African-American studies at Harvard. “We’ve all been holding our breath since Conrad Harper resigned; this will be greeted warmly and heartily.”

An influential group of current and former department chairmen recently issued a call, in an open letter in Harvard Magazine, for the corporation to choose someone with “deep knowledge of and a close affiliation with the academic world.”

Most other corporation members tilt more heavily toward the business world, although the newest member before King, Nan Keohane, is a former president of Duke University and Wellesley College.

Arthur Kleinman, chairman of the anthropology department and a signatory to the open letter, said members of the corporation have done a better job consulting faculty this fall than they had during the height of the controversy in the spring, when the Faculty of Arts and Sciences voted no confidence in Summers. With Keohane and King joining the board, “I’m optimistic that it’s a fresher, more dynamic group that strikes me as more open to the voice of the faculty,” he said.

King, a 1969 graduate of Harvard Law School, has been on the Georgetown faculty since 1974. She recently ended a five-year tenure as chairwoman of the board at Wheaton College in Norton, her alma mater, and is vice chairwoman of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

King has long served as a mentor to black and female professors at Harvard Law School, said professor Charles J. Ogletree, who last night described himself as ecstatic over the appointment. Ogletree is a longtime friend of King’s and serves with her on the Kaiser board.

When the board debates difficult topics such as AIDS in South Africa or American children watching too much television, nothing can be resolved without King’s input, he said.

“After we do all our posturing and complaining, we have to ask, ‘What does Pat think?’” he said. “We all share her views, but we can’t articulate them as well.”

Ogletree said that the corporation discussed King’s appointment “with all the right people,” but declined to discuss the process.

In her 1991 Senate testimony against the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, King described growing up in a female-headed household in a public housing project in Norfolk, Va., and attending segregated schools. She said she could apply to only one college because her family couldn’t afford multiple applications, and the only way she could attend Wheaton was for her uncle to put a second mortgage on his house.

King said she was reluctant to share her story, because it did not impact her professionally, and “I don’t want people’s sympathy or their condescension.” But she also said she benefited from affirmative action in her admission to Harvard Law School.

“Somehow, Judge Thomas seems not to remember those he must have encountered along the way who were lost to the darkness simply because there was no help for them,” she said then.

King is married to Roger Wilkins, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and professor of history at George Mason University in Virginia, who also serves on the board of the NAACP legal defense fund. They have a grown daughter.