Pluralism's Consequences: Living With Diversity

Pluralism and its consequences swept through the College in 1988-'89 like no other year. Even as humanities scholars embraced the legitimacy of "different voices" from the Western traditions advocated by men like former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett and University of Chicago professor Allan Bloom, the realities of living with diversity caught up with students in the Yard and the houses and with University officials.

Nowhere was the issue of pluralism more prominent than in the coordination of student demands for reform in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. For years, minority groups have pleaded, demanded and bargained with administrators for ethnic studies courses to balance out the University's curriculum. In 1988, after a coalition of minority leaders filed an intensive and stinging criticism of hiring practices, the faculty finally responded.

And in a signal that the issue had gained support throughout the College population, 2379 undergraduates--and the Undergraduate Council--endorsed the idea of a change in the faculty.

Just such widespread participation characterized the year. In February, minority groups held a conference--billed as an opportunity to build networks--inviting 600 students from throughout New England to a multiethnic gathering.

Later that month, College administrators barraged the campus with publicity for a week-long program addressing racial awareness and "racism among the well-intentioned."

After the council voted in April to ask Harvard to negotiate the return of the Reserve Officers Training Corps to campus, the community responded with a striking move to defend the rights of gays and lesbians from military discrimination.

On a more personal level, students confronted the consequences of another type of diversity for which Harvard so often congratulates itself. Masters this year requested a more random system of assigning students to the houses to avoid what they said was growing segregation by extracurricular or academic interest. The controversial plan foundered, but Dean of the College L. Fred Jewett '57 plans to reintroduce it this fall in different form.

Yet the year's crises also centered on the failure of tolerance, on the community's inability to live together peacably. Outrage flared in March when Cambridge police pulled two Black students off a University shuttle bus, searched them and left them on the curb without explanation. Police said they mistook the pair for a white suspect in a nearby convenience store robbery and defended the officers' behavior as "proper and professional."

An ugly incident at Mather House involving the alleged assault of a gay resident provoked a "kiss-in" demonstration by the gay community in the house's dining hall. Anger erupted when some said the action was "inappropriate," while others said such comments typified the reality of homophobia on campus.

Such circumstances are by no means unique to Harvard. As far away as Stanford and Howard Universities, and as near as the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, students protested, occupied buildings and faced arrest for their belief in the responsibilities of a pluralist society.

But the events at Harvard have brought home this question: to what extent must individuals accept the actions of those with whom they disagree? The challenge and legacy of diversity is a community's commitment to care how to live together.