Defining Diversity

President Summers must prove his commitment to diversity with actions, not words

One of Neil L. Rudenstine’s greatest legacies as president of Harvard was the revitalization of the Afro-American studies department. By taking a personal interest in recruiting people like DuBois Professor of the Humanities Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr., former Carswell professor of Afro-American studies and of philosophy K. Anthony Appiah and Fletcher University Professor Cornel R. West ’74, Rudenstine did more than assemble a “dream team” of scholars—he sent the clear message that diversity was a high priority for the University and that minorities would be welcomed with open arms.

The first year of University President Lawrence H. Summers’ tenure, on the other hand, has been marred by several incidents which have caused many to question Summers’ dedication to diversity. While Summers has embraced diversity in his rhetoric, his actions have not backed up his words. By ignoring calls for an ethnic studies department after mishandling the Cornel West controversy, Summers has shown his definition of diversity to be different from that which the University needs. Summers should heed students’ calls for an ethnic studies department if Harvard is to continue to lead the nation in inclusiveness and breadth of its academic program.

The first rumblings of discontent over Summers’ diversity stance came in the wake of a contentious meeting between Summers and West last fall, in which Summers reportedly asked West to undertake more scholarly research. The dispute initially appeared more personal than academic; Summers has been known to be confrontational and abrasive in person. But race soon entered the controversy when the Rev. Jesse Jackson held a press conference in support of West and chided Summers for not doing enough to support affirmative action.

Summers tried to combat the perception that he is not sufficiently pro-diversity by releasing a statement on diversity and reiterating his commitment to the Afro-American Studies department. But the departures of West and Appiah for Princeton have weakened the department—and though Gates says he will stay for another year, he has not made his final decision. However, even more damaging to Summers’ credentials on diversity has been his refusal to endorse an ethnic studies department in the face of increasing student pressure.

Embracing ethnic studies would allow students to engage in valid and valuable intellectual pursuits. The current system constricts undergraduates, compromising their academic interests by forcing them to concentrate in other fields. Supporting the several undergraduate groups that have rightly been pushing for ethnic studies, the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations released a report in late April that called for, among other initiatives, the creation of a Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. The report advocated the establishment of tenured faculty positions in Native American, Latino, Asian American and Comparative Race and Ethnic Studies. This proposal is a sound first step—it would allow for the branching of full-fledged departments from a broad center once each specific discipline has gained sufficient resources. Yet Summers has not publicly commented on the report, and he has made no move to adopt its recommendations.

The perception that Summers did not sufficiently value diversity escalated after comments he reportedly made to students whom met him to advocate for a Latino studies department. According to students at the meeting, Summers defended the Afro-American studies department because of the centrality of the issue of slavery to the Civil War and voiced skepticism about creating departments for students to study their own ethnicity—a position that thoroughly underestimates the value of the Afro-American studies department. The students who attended the meeting said Summers appeared to be uninterested in their petition and resisted responding in writing to the students’ specific demands—creating the impression that not only was he opposed to ethnic studies, but that he cared so little about the issue as to not deem it worthy of public discussion. Although there are legitimate debates about the academic need for the study of ethnicity, Summers has unfortunately chosen to withdraw from the dialogue rather than engage it.

The drumbeat for more diversity has not been limited to ethnic studies advocates. In a report last month, the Undergraduate Council urged the new dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences to concentrate on increasing faculty diversity. The pressure on him has built with the formation of a loose group of students from several organizations who have begun a campaign to push for more diversity in the University’s curriculum, in the Faculty and in a “diversity of campus voices.”

Summers has often said that he values diversity. His actions, however, have done little to support his words. Summers still has plenty of time to rebuild his relationship with proponents of ethnic studies and show that Harvard truly values diversity—but he can no longer expect his words to take the place of actions.

Recommended Articles