Diversity Issues Weigh Heavily on Pre-Frosh

Many minority students say West dispute makes them think twice

Black and Latino students visiting campus this weekend for pre-frosh weekend said the controversy surrounding the conflict between University President Lawrence H. Summers and members of the Afro-American studies department has made them question the attractiveness of the College.

Many pre-frosh said this weekend they had been following coverage of the dispute between Summers and Fletcher University Professor Cornel R. West ’74 in the national media and said they were unsettled by West’s allegations that Summers “disrespected” and “dishonored” him.

Cliff Emmanuel, a pre-frosh from Queens, N.Y., said Saturday that he was troubled by the reports he had read in the newspapers but that he was looking forward to meeting students and judging for himself the degree of diversity present on Harvard’s campus.

“I think it reflects more the sentiments of one person [Summers] rather than the overall mentality of the school,” Emmanuel said.

Brooks Washington, a pre-frosh from San Francisco, expressed his disappointment over the imminent departures of West and Carswell Professor of Afro-American Studies and Philosophy K. Anthony Appiah.

The strength of Harvard’s Afro-American studies department had been one of the selling points that had first attracted him to Harvard, Washington said.

These concerns echoed those that have been expressed by minority high school students since news of the Summers-West conflict first became public in December, according to Alonzo Sherman ’03, one of the African-American coordinators for the Undergraduate Minority Recruitment Program (UMRP).

UMRP, which is operated by the admissions office, works through the year to encourage minority students to apply to and come to Harvard. The group telephones accepted minority students and travels across the country to entice minority students to come to Cambridge.

“It definitely has been an issue, even when there were just rumors flying around,” said Sherman, who is also president-elect of the Black Men’s Forum. “This whole controversy is really making students think twice—and that second thought could make students go somewhere else.”

“One thing Harvard really puts forward is its diversity, and we are fairly diverse relative to other schools,” he added. “This is a major blow to that competitive edge.”

Maribel Hernandez ’04, who is the president of RAZA and one of two Mexican-American coordinators for the UMRP, said she fielded similar questions from minority pre-frosh this weekend.

Hernandez said she tried to handle such questions by admitting her concerns with the administration’s position on diversity but pointing out the efforts of Faculty and students to promote a stronger minority community at Harvard.

“Although some people in the administration might not be committed to diversity, the [student] leaders here really care about having more minorities coming into this school,” she said.

Hernandez said the goal of RAZA and other ethnic student groups this weekend was to make minority students feel welcome at Harvard.

Brandon A. Gayle ’03, president of the Black Students’ Association (BSA), expressed similar sentiments.

Gayle said he and other members of BSA attempted to show pre-frosh that the opportunities at Harvard outweigh concerns raised by the current controversy.

“A president who may not...be the most tactful, certainly should not be the deciding factor when looking at schools,” he said.

UMRP hosted two panel discussions for minority pre-frosh, including one student panel and one Faculty panel that was addressed by Rudenstine Professor of Latin American Studies David L. Carasco and moderated by David L. Evans, a senior officer in the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid.

Minority community groups on campus also hosted a number of social events this weekend.

The BSA, Fuerza Latina and RAZA sponsored a barbeque Saturday afternoon outside the Science Center, while the Caribbean Club hosted a carnival in the Quincy House courtyard on Sunday. And the Asian American Association (AAA) co-sponsored a barbeque with the Korean Association on Saturday.

Also the Black Men’s Forum and Fuerza Latina both sponsored parties this weekend.

And events highlighting minority culture such as a concert by the Kuumba Singers and the annual Eleganza fashion and entertainment show, also took place.

As of yesterday, it was too early to definitively tell whether the Summers-West conflict would negatively impact the acceptance yields for minority students this year.

Director of Admissions Marlyn McGrath Lewis ’70-’73 said yesterday the College’s admissions yields for black and Latino students tend to be roughly on par with those for white students.

But students accepted into the Class of 2006 have until May 1 to accept or decline the University’s offer—and McGrath Lewis said yesterday she did not have any early estimates of the yields on those students.

Fred O. Smith ’04, political action chair of the BSA, suggested this year’s yield for minorities will be unaffected by West’s departure. But if Summers does not improve his rocky relationship with the minority community, these numbers may go down.

“I doubt that the Summers conflict will have a major impact on minority students’ decision to come here, at least not yet,” Smith wrote in an e-mail. “I do think however, that in the upcoming year, if Summers continues on his current course, his reputation as being unfriendly to minorities will become more firmly entrenched.”

Sophia Lai ’04, co-president of the AAA, said she thought the Summers-West controversy was less of a concern to Asian-American pre-frosh she spoke with. But that did not mean diversity was not an important factor in their college choice.

“I think [diversity] is a big concern for Asian-Americans,” she said.

But she said the pre-frosh she had talked to were more concerned with the diversity of the student body than of the curriculum.

Sherman said yesterday he hoped pre-frosh walked away from the weekend’s events with a sense of the strong minority community that he feels is present at Harvard.

“The students came up, and they saw what the campus has to offer,” he said. “Hopefully this weekend, pre-frosh saw a group of students who are fighting to hold Harvard accountable for its commitment to diversity, and if anything, it’s going to bring us even closer together.”

—Staff writer Kate L. Rakoczy can be reached at rakoczy@fas.harvard.edu.