In recasting the race relations bureaucracy over the past year, Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III simply stepped back.
Epps has played an active, handson role in managing race relations since he was appointed the campus' "race czar" in 1992. But in meeting complaints that the race bureaucracy was muddled in red tape, he did more than just combine committees.
He created a body of student, faculty and administrative "mediators," trained them and put them in charge.
The race czar's hope was that the Harvard Mediation Service could resolve disputes before they turned into crises.
Epps wanted to distance himself from the bureaucracy and to establish a body that could mediate disputes through the approval of the conflicting parties, not the Dean of Student's office. Epps became just one of the mediators.
Giving students an active role in resolving racial disputes was a bold move by Epps. In dealing with such matters, the recent trend at Harvard has been to create committees.
The Harvard Mediation Service is a group of students, faculty and tutors who are trained by professional consultants to negotiate racial conflicts and improve the dialogue between disputing campus groups and individuals.
The mediation service was formed in response to a diagnostic report on race relations at Harvard prepared by two professional consulting groups, Conflict Management Group (CMG) and conflict Management, Inc. These groups also trained the mediators in two weekend sessions this spring.
Epps bills the service a "safety net," which would deal with racial conflicts before they erupt into major problems. But he says he realizes the mediators "can't settle issues just by solving disputes."
In an interview this month, Epps said that while the mediators will continue to concentrate on racial issues, they will also be prepared to mediate other disputes such as conflicts with the student government.
When training sessions for the mediators started in March the race czar participated not as dean but rather as a fellow mediator.
Epps says his role in the service will be at the member level. "I have been trained and would hope to have a beat myself," the dean says. He also says he will not be on the steering committee, which will consist of students, faculty and administrators.
Dara Orenstein '96, a mediator, stresses the importance of distinguishing the mediation service from the Dean of Students office.
"Dean Epps did create the Mediation Service, but he is not controlling it," she says. answer to him. "We do not answer to him. There could be conflicts between Epp's office and student groups we might want to mediate."
Epps says the mediation service should be distinct from the Dean of Students' office and earn the respect of the campus on its own.
"I feel that while the Dean of Students office has launched the service, it is beginning to exist on its own," Epps says. "We tried to set it up to avoid the appearance of control by the Dean of Students office or any actual control."
Joan R. Cheng '95, a student mediator and former co-president of the Asian American Association, says she is pleased with the activities of the service. "We don't just want to sit here waiting for people to call," she says.
The mediators will try to establish relationships between different mediators and student groups or set up an open house in the fall, Cheng says. Epps calls these relationships "beats."
This March, the pilot mediation program began with 18 mediators selected from a pool of 40 applicants.
Epps says the mediators were selected according to the quality of their applications, communications skills, maturity and prior experience dealing with racial tensions.
During training, the mediators learned to teach conflicting groups how to analyze situations from different perspectives, according to Robert Rosigliono, a CMG consultant.
Rosigliono says the mediation members will work to improve the false perceptions people have about different genders and races to lessen the chance of conflicts.
"[People of one race] tend to see a problem in a certain way," he says.
One of the areas which Epps has targeted for the mediators' skills is police and community relations.
During the April training session, the mediators were informed of a video which deals with the issue of minority students being harassed by the Harvard police. Black students have repeatedly made accusations of racial discrimination by University officers in the past.
The video created by the police last winter contains simulated interactions between the police and students.
"I'd like the mediation service members to look at the video and suggest an approach to the problem," Epps says.
Cheng says she will participate in a summer committee of mediators to publicize the group and to plan activities with proctor groups, houses and the Bok Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning.
Through the Bok Center, the mediators say they want to work with the teaching fellow staff to improve the dialogue in the classroom settings.
Although the idea for the service was conceived in the fall during Epps' overhaul of the race relations bureaucracy, actual mediation has yet to begin. First, the mediators must decide how to approach the campus.
"After the training session, we did not feel, 'OK now were ready to jump in the campus and tackle all conflicts,'" Cheng says. "There were other issues--how do campus groups feel about having us around, how do we decide who mediates what, issues of confidentiality."
Epps notes that this past year has been "gratefully free" of major racial disputes on campus that might involve the work of the mediators.
And although tutors and students say the service is an innovative approach to settling racial conflicts, some tutors say professionals, not students, should be handling the volatile issue of racial tension.
"I think it is an unfair burden for students to have handle," Angela Gonzales, the Kirkland House race relations tutor, said in February. "It's almost as if we are shifting the responsibility away from ourselves."
But Epps maintains that students, including first-years, would be an important addition to race relations advising and conflict mediation.
"Undergraduates can be extraordinary," he says. "Adults often tend to be stuck in their old ways."