Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in what is arguably the second-hottest race in the nation, Massachusetts', was the recipient of a Lindback Award at the University of Pennsylvania in 1994. The awards, established in the name of the onetime president and principal owner of Abbotts Dairies, recognize distinguished teaching at Penn.
Warren's recognition was noted in a 2005 "Minority Equity Report." The document (still accessible online) was prepared by the Minority Equity Committee at Penn, which was established to "undertake a systematic review of the status of minority faculty at the university." Table 11 of the report lists the names of the 112 Lindback Award recipients from 1991 through 2004, eight of which appear in boldface italics.
Three of those professors are African American. Three are Asian. One is Puerto Rican. And then there is:
Elizabeth Warren, William A. Schnader Professor of Commercial Law.
That Warren's name appeared in bold and italics designated her as a minority, just like the African American, Asian, and Puerto Rican Lindback recipients.
Did Warren derive professional benefits from describing herself as a minority while she was at Penn and Harvard? That question continues to dog her candidacy. Her difficulty answering it has made it much more than the speed bump it might have been on a fast track to the seat once held by Edward M. Kennedy.
For nine years, while she was teaching at the University of Texas and Penn, Warren also listed herself as a minority in the Association of American Law Schools' directory. Who provides such information to the academic reference? The faculty members themselves.
Warren only stopped listing herself as such in 1995, just after she was hired by Harvard. But while she was at Harvard, the Crimson newspaper reported that the university's faculty included one Native American: Warren. And when she received tenure there, another Crimson story said she was the first woman with a minority background to receive tenure.
All of which would be well and good if Warren could substantiate her claim of Native American ancestry, which is a federal requirement when universities report diversity data. Thus far, she has not, and by her own admission, her connection to American Indians is remote.
Ever since this issue was raised by the Boston Herald in April, Warren has stumbled in her efforts to explain her claims of minority status. She initially sought to minimize the controversy by saying she had merely hoped "that I'd get invited to some lunch group or some — maybe some dinner conversation, and I might find some more people like me ... people for whom Native American is part of their heritage and part of their hearts." That didn't silence the questions.
Finally, after five weeks of trying to dodge the matter, Warren sought to quell the controversy with an e-mail to supporters that read, in part: "The people involved in recruiting and hiring me for my teaching jobs, including Charles Fried — solicitor-general under Ronald Reagan who has publicly said he voted for Scott Brown in 2010 — have said unequivocally they were not aware of my heritage and that it played no role in my hiring. Documents that reporters have examined also show I did not benefit from my heritage when applying to college or law school. As I have confirmed before, I let people know about my Native American heritage in a national directory of law school personnel. At some point after I was hired by them, I also provided that information to the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard. My Native American heritage is part of who I am, I'm proud of it and I have been open about it."
In a subsequent conversation with the Boston Globe's Brian McGrory, Warren insisted that the Harvard and Penn law schools hired her because of her scholarship and teaching abilities, not to increase the diversity of their faculties. She says she told the law schools she was Native American after she was hired. But she has not asked the schools to release hiring records that might substantiate her claim.
That her opponent, Republican Sen. Scott Brown, has kept up the pressure is no surprise.
"This goes right to the integrity and character of a person," Brown has said. "When you check that box, you're getting benefits [for] people who have historically been discriminated against."
He raises a legitimate point. The silence thus far from those minorities who are the intended beneficiaries of affirmative action is curious. If and when they demand to know whether Warren played the Native American card inappropriately, this issue could go from curiosity to deal-breaker.
Michael Smerconish can be reached at www.smerconish.com.