Professor Cheryl Harris drew a standing ovation from a packed crowd when she received the 2018 Rutter Award for Excellence in Teaching, UCLA School of Law’s highest faculty honor, on April 9.
The Rutter Award was founded by famed legal publisher William Rutter and has been given to the leading legal educators at five top California law schools since 1979.
A trailblazing scholar in civil rights law, Harris is the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Professor in Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at UCLA Law. A member of the law school faculty since 1998, she has served as faculty director of the school’s Critical Race Studies program.
Before coming to UCLA, Harris worked in criminal defense and city government in Chicago and taught at Chicago-Kent College of Law. She offered vital organizational and legal insight in the development of the post-apartheid constitution of South Africa. And the 1993 publication of her article “Whiteness as Property,” in the Harvard Law Review, was a seminal development in the field.
But for all of her success as an internationally renowned scholar, Harris was celebrated for her work as an educator.
In a classroom overflowing with approximately 125 members of the law school community, UCLA Law Dean Jennifer L. Mnookin introduced Harris as a professor who is uncommonly devoted to her students. To prove the point, Mnookin read some of Harris’ student evaluations. One student wrote that Harris “is so kind and smart and funny. I was pretty intimidated coming into this class because she is so well-known and brilliant. But she made it easy to speak in class — on really difficult subjects, too.”
In accepting the award, Harris recalled the guidance of mentors including her grandmother, the head of her parochial elementary school on the south side of Chicago, and the legendary law professor and civil rights activist Derrick Bell.
Saying that she was once a “painfully shy kindergartener who had to be coaxed to talk,” Harris looked back on a career where she emerged as a compelling orator who has had a profound influence on generations of lawyers, academics and activists.
“Teaching involves more than information transmission: It concerns fundamental questions about values, respect and justice,” she said, acknowledging the importance of “wrestling with history” as new political and social challenges present themselves. “Placing students at the center can mean asking tough questions of students — and of one’s self.”
William Rutter’s son Paul, a 1978 graduate of UCLA Law, presented the award to Harris, who was later toasted by faculty, staff, students, alumni, family and friends at a reception.