History Repeats Itself

Three years ago, the Afro-American Studies Department had one tenured professor and students decided to do something about it. After a series of meetings and a dramatic overnight sit-in in University Hall, they got the changes they wanted. Now it is 1993, and activists have changed their concerns. But despite many differences, in some ways it seems like...

The students chants and cries of 1990 are still ringing in the cars of Harvard's veteran administrators today. At least it seems that way.

On March 5, 1993, nine student groups came together to call for ethnic studies in the curriculum and diversification of the faculty.

They protested during Junior Parents Weekend, dramatically drawing attention to their cause and focusing administrators' attention on the issue.

Flasback to October 22, 1990: Five Afro-American Studies concentrators, angry at the lack of support for their department, staged a protest in Massachusetts Hall.

Refusing to leave then President Derek C. Bok's office, they sat in for two hours after a meeting with Bok, then Acting Dean of the Faculty Henry Rosovsky and other authorities.

Two days later, 180 students protested in front of University Hall for greater faculty diversity.

Ultimately, on November 16--in a story that has earned a place in the lore of student activism at Harvard--Afro-American Studies concentrators and Black Students Association members slept over at University Hall, refusing to leave for 23 hours and calling for support for Afro-American Studies.

Today's students are in many ways extremely different: The coalition is more broadly representative of the campus' minority communities, and its concerns are more diverse as well.

Courses in Latino American studies and Asian American studies are on today's agenda, as well as a more representative faculty.

On the flip side--despite Harvard's storied institutional inertia--the faces of the administration have changed also: Activists take their calls for action not to Bok and Rosovsky, but to President Neil L. Rudenstine, Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles and Provost Jerry R. Green.

As the players have changed, so too has the dynamic of Harvard's ongoing institutional debate over ethnic studies.

On returning to campus following the 23-hour sleep-in by Afro-American Studies concentrators, Rosovsky, a veteran of the 1969 protests that sparked the formation of the Afro-Am department, was not particularly overwhelmed.

"I've been through quite a few," he said.

Bok, as well, had been tried during his 20-year tenure by the fires of student activism.

"No pressure by students is going to have any effect on me," Bok said during the University Hall protest, although he called faculty searches for Afro-American Studies one of his top priorities.

After the sit in, the Faculty Council at the time reaffirmed regulations for bidding "unacceptable obstructions" of University buildings. Later, Dean of the College L. Fred Jewett '57 issued a strong letter of warning to sit-in participants.

But this year's group of top Harvard officials, perhaps not as hardened by experience, did not so easily discount the potential effects of student demands. In fact, the Knowles-Rudenstine-Green troika was eager to acknowledge the validity of student concerns.

Rudenstine, in an interview after the minority student coalition's protest, said he and other Harvard administrators were taking "very seriously" the coalition's demands and said the undergraduates had raised "genuinely substantive issues."

Knowles formed a subcommittee of the Educational Policy Committee to look into questions of ethnic studies and affirmative action.

And the Faculty Council this week, far from condemning students, discussed the need for a broad, comprehensive re-examination of race relations and ethnic studies at Harvard.

The coalition has, since March 5, met with a laundry list of Harvard's top authorities, including Rudenstine, Knowles, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education Lawrence Buell, Associate Dean for Affirmative Action Marjorie Garber. Jewett and Dean of Students Archie C. Epps.

For the students, the rhetoric has also toned down. In 1990, the student activists' spokesperson said to officials, "If you do not meet the demands, we will get rowdy again. We will have no choice but to smear your name in the disgusting truth which you have created."

Leaders of the 1993 coalition, though their flier accused Harvard of "institutionalized racism," have made no such explicit threats.

But there is one more key difference between 1990 and today. The students of 1990 today can see a burgeoning Afro-American Studies department, one which has recently tenured another prominent professor and which has hosted high-profile visitors like Spike Lee and novelist Jamaica Kincaid.

The coalition of 1993 does not yet know what the results of their meetings will be, but students say they will not give up the fight.

"We have established clearly what our demands are and we'll expect a response...we don't want to be threatening to the University, but we are determined to see them through," said Zaheer R. Ali '94, Black Students Association president.