Getting people into a room and exchanging views across difference in a way that shifts people is the “bread and butter” of academia, said Harvard Law School Professor Jonathan Zittrain ’95. “It’s also the highest purpose in a way of truth seeking,” he added. 

Three years ago, Zittrain, the vice dean of library and information resources, conceived of an event he called “Why I Changed My Mind,” that would demonstrate the different ways faculty members reckon with changing ideas, as their previously settled points of view evolved with new arguments, information, and data. 

As academics, Zittrain said, “we try to at times both be bold and humble at the same time about our commitments, ready to revise in the face of new facts, of new views, of growth, of reflection.”

This year’s “Why I Changed My Mind” panel, which took place on March 6, featured Harvard professors Janet Halley, the Eli Goldston Professor of Law, Juliette Kayyem ’95, the Belfer Senior Lecturer in International Security at Harvard Kennedy School, and Ruth L. Okediji LL.M. ’91 S.J.D. ’96, the Jeremiah Smith. Jr. Professor of Law. As moderator, Zittrain asked each panelist to share either some moment or “tectonic shift” on which they looked back and realized their views had changed.

‘That uprooted everything’

Halley, an expert on feminist legal theory, and gender, sexuality, and the law, said two particular cases she was involved in — that centered on harassment from different perspectives — “uprooted” everything for her and caused the shifting of her mindset.

Halley came to law teaching with two big political projects — feminism and gay rights. 

As a feminist, she believed it would take a women’s liberation or emancipation project to address structural issues of male domination and female subordination. She also had a strong commitment to the lesbian and gay movement which, she said, in the 1980s was experiencing several “major traumas” with “the catastrophic devastation of the HIV virus” and the 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick Supreme Court decision.

She was also working with pioneering queer theorist Eve Sedgwick, author of “Epistemology of the Closet,” on the concept of homosexual panic, the idea that under conditions of secrecy there was a certain retaliation against gay people, not for being gay but for being an object of attraction for a person who was both attracted to same sex people and terrified by that attraction.

While teaching at Stanford Law School, Halley led Stanford’s fledging sexual harassment effort. She approached these cases “always believing” the women, she said, and this belief invariably was validated in multiple cases of graduate students who faced instances of discrimination or harassment. But one case, involving a female law school staff member who accused a male professor of groping her in the copy room, was particularly troubling for Halley and her fellow committee members.

The alleged incident took place in a copy room “the size of a broom closet,” and the professor “seemed to profess complete and total non-memory of the event,” said Halley. She and the committee members were nonplussed and debated endlessly what to do. In the end, to her “shame,” Halley said, she agreed to go to the professor and say, “’We’re not going to tell you who’s accusing you. We’re not going to tell you what you did, but just don’t do it again.’” To this day, Halley recalls the shocked look on his face. The same woman also complained that another professor had had too much eye contact with her in the hallway and that this manifested his will to restrict her space sexually in the law school.

At the same time, Halley was involved in legal challenges which fell under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the military’s anti-gay policy. In one of her cases, a male service member was accused of engaging in too much eye contact with a male postal clerk while getting his mail. The clerk reported him under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell protocols, and the service member was discharged from the military for “manifesting a propensity to engage in homosexual conduct.”

“All of a sudden these two cases just crashed together in my mind,” said Halley.  

“It suddenly occurred to me, it was like ‘wham,’ there could be such a thing as heterosexual panic, and women could have it,” she said. “[The Stanford staff member] could be a very sympathetic figure, that we could really care about her, but we wouldn’t take it for granted that her accusations that there had been wrongful conduct to her were, per se, true.”

“That reoriented everything for me,” Halley said. “It took me 10 years to work that out.” It also had profound intellectual implications for her, she said. “What was I going to do with the fact that I suddenly could no longer see men as the devil and women as the angel? She wasn’t a devil. She was a very hurting person, and she needed a lot of care and attention, and reorientation to her job, and love.” But having the professor punished, she said, would not have addressed her problem. “That uprooted everything.”

‘Rethinking run hide fight’

Harvard Kennedy School Lecturer Juliette Kayyem ’95, a nationally recognized national security and crisis management analyst who served as assistant secretary of Homeland Security during the Obama administration, said she experienced a “transformative shift” in her thinking on mass shooting security and safety guidance as a direct result of the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.

Addressing the students in the room, Kayyem said, “You are considered ‘Generation Lockdown,’” referencing the generation of students who grew up in the aftermath of the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, at the time the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history. “[Columbine] launched the way we think and train and respond to active shooter cases,” she said. 

School lockdown safety drills became the norm, with students trained to lock classroom doors, shut off lights and close blinds to minimize risk. “Run, hide, fight” became the guiding principle in the security profession when active shooters were involved, with law enforcement agencies advising civilians if confronted by a shooter, they should escape the area if they can, hide if it’s an option, and confront the gunman, only as a last resort. 

While that guidance existed for a long time, the rise of the AR-15 assault rifle, what Kayyem describes as the “American weapon of choice,” made the ‘run, hide, fight’ protocol outdated.

Advising students to hide presumes that they have time —  three or four minutes — until law enforcement arrives, said Kayyem. While that was typically true if the shooter used a handgun — since handgun barrels can only hold so many bullets — the AR-15 with its high-velocity firepower allowed perpetrators to kill many more people more quickly.

“The AR-15 denies people’s ability to run or hide and it denies the time that law enforcement would be needed to get in,” said Kayyem.

Data suggested that engaging the gunman for the purpose of distraction may prove more effective than other choices, she said. “I started to look at the cases and there started to be more and more cases of active shooter in which engagement with the shooter by non-law enforcement became beneficial because it bought time.”

She cited several examples — the 2023 dance studio shooting in Monterey Park, California, a 2022 shooting at a Colorado Springs gay nightclub, and a 2018 mass shooting at a Waffle House in Tennessee — where intervention by bystanders prevented shootings from escalating.

Kayyem, a frequent contributor to The Atlantic and a national security analyst for CNN, published a November 2022 essay, titled “Rethinking run hide fight,” making the case for reprioritizing guidance on what to tell people who might find themselves in a mass shooting event.

Adopting an “avoid, deny, and defense” approach — avoiding, if you can, denying the shooter access by keeping distance or creating barriers, if possible, and defending, as a last resort — should be the recommended strategy, she said.

This change in thinking on how to train civilians acknowledges the failures of law and public policy in the United States, she said. “It is adapting to the AR-15 rather than ending it.” 

She worried about public backlash, recognizing that reframing the protocol could intentionally be misinterpreted to suggest that more people should be armed — supporting “more good people armed,” the slogan of the NRA — which, she says, is patently false. 

“I just want to put that to rest. The data is clear that is not true. There’s one case in the last 10 years where non-law enforcement because they were armed stopped a mass shooting,” said Kayyem. “If that were true, we would be the safest nation on Earth because we’re the most armed nation on Earth and we’re clearly not.”

“Run always if you can, but deny and defense,” reflects what is happening now, said Kayyem. “We have to give ourselves agency in a world in which our public policy and our laws have failed to do so.”

A humbling turn

Ruth Okediji, who has advised inter-governmental organizations and national governments on a range of matters and has worked closely with several United Nations agencies and international organizations, said she came to the law school in the ‘hey day’ of international law at Harvard, with a focus on the “edifice of colonialism and its impact on the global South, and its impact on minorities.” 

In a world where indigenous populations are about 6% of the entire world’s population, but account for 16% of what would be described as the “extreme poor,” living on less than one dollar per day, Okediji said much of the work that she did focused on how to strengthen weak states and minority groups. 

She often did this, she said, by “chastising” leaders who represented many minority groups in international fora for not adequately representing their constituents’ interests in treaties and international instruments.

“It was uber self-righteous, uber critical,” she said. “[It was] very much the sense that people with power were not using that power for the good of their people, and I spent years from that platform writing, debating, contending with lots of ghosts behind these international treaties.”

She always thought it was corrupt leadership that needed to “be brought to task,” and “the victims,” in her own words, needed citizenship, and restitution and reparation. But then she got thrust into an international negotiation in which indigenous people were demanding recognition and protection for their knowledge and artifacts from the state, and the ability to prevent people from interfering with reservations or sacred spaces.

As a lead negotiator for indigenous treaties, she had focused her work on creating ways for minority groups to become a part of the state as equal citizens, with rights and agency. Yet, she said, through months of hearings closely listening to indigenous groups, she said she realized what they actually wanted were opportunities to define their own sense of well-being and livelihoods, and safeguard their own knowledge assets.

Okediji said she came to understand that indigenous groups were saying: “’The best thing you can do for us is not to give us equality in the sense that you think of it, but to give us structural equality — to give us the opportunity to decide the kinds of lives that we want to live’.” 

It was a profound moment, she said, — what she describes as a “Day of Reckoning.” The treaties she had spent years criticizing and debating, and the leaders she had assumed were wrong and corrupt, were, in fact, the leaders she needed to turn to hear what they thought would make their people better off, she said. 

“The things we believe are good and that we believe are defensible may in fact not be the things that the people we purport to speak for want,” she said. Having to make that turn, and do it publicly, was humbling.

“I had to begin to see their interests through their eyes and thereby reshape, kind of, the platforms from which I was operating. It was a humbling, humbling experience,” she said. “Intellectually, it was sort of whiplash.”

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