If the call for a multicultural student center were simply a call for a minority student center, then our position would be easy. We have opposed the creation of a minority student center in the past. Such centers tend to promote separation by institutionalizing certain groups as "minority" groups and encouraging them to build ties together, often to the exclusion of other groups on campus.
The College's commitment to diversity seeks to foster the rapproachment of all individuals of all ethnic backgrounds, not to promote some constructed duality between minority and majority peoples. The purpose of pluralism is to break down those distinctions to reveal individuals with their diverse heritages, not to promote the interaction of some groups to the exclusion of others.
Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III said much the same thing in rejecting the request of the Minority Student Alliance (MSA) for a multicultural center. Epps replied to the MSA in a letter, saying that a "multicultural" center is at odds with the College's "general philosophy of race relations."
In today's parlance, "multiculturalism" is often associated with the attempt to express the views of ethnic groups who believe their perspectives are unfairly marginalized by existing standards. The call for ethnic studies, for instance, begins with an interest in the role of race in society, but limits its viewpoint to an examination of the experience of certain nonwhite minorities in American society.
However, the leaders of MSA say they want a multicultural student center in the true sense of pluralism, one that would "facilitate exchange between all students, regardless of their ethnic or cultural backgrounds," as they wrote in their letter to these pages.
The proponents of the center argue that they do not want to create a social area to promote the separation of minority students. Instead, they envision a conference room and exhibition hall, around which the College would place the offices for ethnic student groups, including those of European origin.
Their concern is that under the present arrangement, where the offices of ethnic student groups are few and far between, communication and interaction between groups is difficult. A multicultural student center would be a locus around which ethnic student groups could congregate and would be a place for the speakers, meetings and study breaks of ethnic and interethnic student groups.
All in all, the call for a multicultural student center sounds rather innocuous. It hardly sounds like a stratagem of racial separatists. One might expect that the University would oppose it on the grounds of expediency rather than philosophy.
It is on grounds of expediency that we support the College's reluctance to create a multicultural student center. As Epps said in his letter to the MSA, the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations was set up by the College to promote racial and cultural understanding through meetings, speakers and events.
If the Harvard Foundation is lacking in this mission, perhaps the MSA can suggest ways to reform the organization, but we believe that the activities of the student center would essentially duplicate those of the foundation.
While we are generally supportive of the MSA's desire to move existing ethnic student groups' offices closer together, office space at the College is at a premium. The new Loker Commons will avoid granting student groups offices on a permanent basis; the facilities will instead be available for use at specific times. These spaces are, of course, open for the use of the MSA and ethnic student groups, as they are to the Harvard community as a whole.
In the final analysis, we do not feel that a multicultural student center is necessary at this time. The Harvard Foundation already serves as an agency for the promotion of intercultural understanding, and the benefits from closer offices do not merit the costs of the space.
While we applaud the ends of the MSA's plans, race elations at Harvard ultimately transcend the interaction of ethnic groups. Pluralism will only come through the interaction of ethnic individuals, not ethnic student groups.
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