UPDATED 9:51 p.m.
After conducting an investigation in response to a recent police report that 36 books treating LGBT topics had been damaged with what appeared to be urine in Lamont Library last month, the University determined Monday morning that the incident was an accident and will no longer be treated as a hate crime, according to a statement sent from College Dean Evelynn M. Hammonds to the Harvard community on Monday.
On November 24, library staff at Lamont discovered the damaged books—on subjects including lesbian and gay issues and same-sex marriage—along with a bottle assumed to have contained what investigators believed to be urine. This past Friday, library personnel reported the incident to the College and Harvard University Police Department as vandalism, and the affair was subsequently investigated as a hate crime for the "focused nature and related topics" of the affected books, according to Hammonds.
But upon an investigation by HUPD, it was revealed Monday morning that "our own library personnel" had accidentally spilled a bottle, containing what was reported to be urine, that had been found on the shelf, according to Hammonds. Harvard College Library plans to replace all 36 damaged books as soon as possible, she added.
"I believe this is an important new fact in the investigation and warrants my sharing it with you immediately. While we should not minimize the seriousness of this incident, HUPD is no longer classifying this incident as a hate crime," Hammonds wrote in her statement. "This nuance in the facts in the case also explains why library personnel did not immediately report the incident and treated it instead as a prank."
Faculty of Arts and Sciences spokesman Jeff Neal wrote in an e-mail that it remains unclear why a bottle of urine was stowed in the library, adding that the spill was reported by the library employee—the same person who caused the spill, according to his understanding—and cleaned up the same day that it occurred.
In response to the initial appearance of the incident as an act of homophobia, Neal reiterated the significance of an inclusive and diverse community as highlighted in Hammonds’ statement.
“Dean Hammonds has repeatedly emphasized the importance of creating a welcoming environment for all students and all affiliates of all backgrounds throughout the Harvard community,” Neal wrote, adding that sexual orientation and gender identity are included in Harvard’s non-discrimination statement.
Harvard College Library spokeswoman Beth S. Brainard declined to comment, referring all questions regarding the incident to Neal.
Though Harvard College Queer Students and Allies Co-Chair Marco Chan '11 expressed relief that the damage was the result of an accident and not a targeted act of homophobia, he said that he remained concerned by facts of the incident that remain unexplained.
"On the one hand, I feel relieved by the news—but on the other hand, I’m still holding breath on questions that are still unresolved," Chan said. "Why was there a bottle of urine on the shelf? Why did it take two weeks for library or HUPD to figure out that this was just an accident? Did someone suddenly come forward?"
QSA Co-Chair Emma Q. Wang ’12 said she was disappointed that Hammonds is only now speaking out about LGBT issues, and that her statement does not address problems faced by the community beyond the incident at Lamont. Wang described Hammonds' e-mail regarding the books as "poor timing," considering the series of LGBT suicides across the nation and the two hate crimes—one an assault on an undergraduate by people shouting homophobic slurs, and the other anti-gay graffiti in a graduate dorm—that occurred at Harvard earlier this semester.
"I don’t think this issue was handled with the degree of sensitivity and care it could have been," Wang said, noting that while the incident is no longer being characterized as a hate crime, it still had an impact on the LGBT community. "It is the College’s responsibility to treat everyone in the community as an equal and to shoulder equal responsibility for incidents that affect that community."
While Hammonds did not release a statement in response to the incidents affecting the LGBT community earlier in the semester, today’s statement does stress ongoing attempts to foster inclusion and diversity on campus. She wrote that these attempts reflect the College’s desire "to uphold important community values of civil engagement on moral and ethical questions in a diverse world," naming both the ongoing BGLTQ Working Group and the Sustained Dialogue Program as striving to fulfill these missions.
Hammonds convened the BGLTQ Working Group in October with the purpose of evaluating the needs and resources of LGBT students and allies. She wrote in the statement that she has asked the Working Group to consider the Lamont incident in formulating their recommendations to the Dean, to be delivered in March, regarding LGBT needs at Harvard. The Sustained Dialogue Program is part of a nationwide network with the aim of creating venues for discussions on issues of diversity and was also adopted at Harvard at the start of the fall semester.
With this emphasis on encouraging conversations within the campus community, Hammonds concluded her statement on a positive note: "In the end, I am heartened by the chorus of support that this incident has elicited for all students, faculty, and staff within the Harvard College community, and value the important conversations it has prompted."
In the e-mail containing the link to Hammonds’ official statement, the Dean addressed students at the College with the hope that the incident would reaffirm the integrity of the College’s diverse community.
“This is an important moment to reiterate our shared values and to note that Harvard College mandates that everyone show respect to all members of our community," Hammonds wrote. "I hope you will join me in espousing and practicing these shared principles."
—Staff writer Alice E.M. Underwood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.