Since the fateful voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492 and his sighting of land on Oct. 11, the lives of people indigenous to the “New World” have drastically been changed forever. Alcoholism, unemployment and gang violence among this country’s 2.5 million Native Americans continue to challenge policymakers in Washington. For their part, Native Americans have recognized that the only available remedy is the continued development of well-educated civil and tribal leaders. The Harvard University Native American Program (HUNAP), which was started in 1970, has focused on this objective as a large part of its development and research goals. However, the University’s commitment to this worthy program is now faltering.
This summer, University Provost Steven E. Hyman decided to move HUNAP from its home of 30 years in Read House at the Graduate School of Education (GSE) to the Kennedy School of Government (KSG) without consulting HUNAP’s administrators or the students, according to HUNAP Executive Director Kenneth Pepion. Now falling under the auspices of KSG, the program has to cope with the disorientation and confusion of an unwanted move and a possible shift in its mission.
The cost of the new location will effectively decrease the program’s budget by over 14 percent. Now, according to Pepion, the provost’s office has pressured HUNAP to cease its continuing efforts at outreach to tribal communities and recruitment for Harvard’s various schools. While many would suggest that the Undergraduate Minority Recruitment Program could fill the void, that program affects only the College and does not have the contacts and years of experience that HUNAP has with Native American communities. In addition, the admissions offices of the various schools currently lack the personnel who could fill HUNAP’s role of expertise in the area of Native American recruitment.
The move was unexpected because of the program’s long history on campus. Despite having to depend on federal grants for survival, HUNAP expanded beyond its beginnings at the GSE to develop programming for student recruitment and retention for all the University’s schools. Through cultural events, leadership forums and community outreach, the program has enriched the Harvard experience for Native American students. It has sponsored and supported research in the fields of government, economic development, primary and secondary education and health in Native American communities for decades. Four years ago, in recognition of these contributions, Harvard increased its support of the program, designating it as one of 11 University interfaculty initiatives. At that time, Harvard’s stated goal was to have HUNAP “become the world’s premier academic center dedicated to the study of contemporary Native America.”
Now, that stated goal has become even more distant. Besides the obvious damage caused by such a large decrease in funding for programming and research, many Native American students returned from the summer shocked to discover that their “second home” on campus was being moved without warning. The decision by the provost displayed a clear disregard for the input of students who have been directly affected. Moreover, as of Columbus Day, a Sept. 18 letter sent by alums to the provost seeking to ascertain his reasoning behind the decision has yet to receive a response. It would be a great shame for Harvard to be eclipsed by Cornell, Dartmouth or Stanford in the study of Native American communities, but it would be a greater shame for the University to turn its back on its own Native American students—a trend that the recent decision suggests.
While the University states that it has a commitment to diversity, does this commitment extend only as far as its promotional materials? Or is the school actively working to ensure the recruitment and retention of both faculty and students of color, particularly amongst Native peoples? In spite of these setbacks, Pepion says he remains optimistic, in the hope that he can gain additional support to sustain the research and student development components of the program among the faculty of KSG.
This Columbus Day, Native Americans are reminded once again of the battles that still need to be fought to bring attention to pressing issues in their communities. Perhaps when HUNAP is provided with genuine support and strong financial commitment that it needs to really become “the world’s premier academic center for Native America,” that struggle will become significantly easier.
C. Duane Meat ’03 is an economics concentrator in Leverett House. He is co-chair of the Student Advisory Committee of the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations.