A Force Much Bigger Than Me

Organizations all have identities. Right or wrong, we have associations with institutions that we see, and those associations grow stronger when the basis on which we see an institution’s product is daily in nature. The Crimson was no different for me upon arriving at Harvard. Its reputation and identity, along with my thirst for an immersive journalism experience, was why I joined. In many ways it was everything I expected. Some things surprised me.

For other people, The Crimson had a reputation for being homogenous. They were in part correct. Harvard is an institution that fills its guidebooks and promotional literature with statistics about its expansive diversity, but our own pitch had for a long time been forced to steer clear of a discussion of demographics. Part of that had to do with the strong and well-run campus organizations that directly catered to certain groups based upon a shared cultural identity. But part of it had to do with the fact that people saw things one way and assumed that that’s the way they had always been.

But that’s not the way they always had to be. Upon my election as The Crimson’s first black president in five decades, there was much looking backward—at what had transpired over that time, the changes in the makeup of the organization, and some of the other barriers that were broken. My focus, however, was on what I could do for the paper’s future.

Our past efforts to increase The Crimson’s racial diversity had been based on socio-economics—the belief that creating policies to attract a greater variance of students from different socio-economic brackets would result in a more diverse racial makeup. Regardless of whether those efforts worked in changing the complexion of The Crimson, it was and still is one of the paper’s most notable endeavors, and a source of aid that sets us apart from other large college newspapers. The reality, though, was that racial shifts were small. My conversations with many of my black peers made clear that some people didn’t feel like The Crimson was a welcoming place for them. I intended to change that.

I aimed to speak directly to groups on campus that tailored to specific cultural identities or interests. This was the hallmark of recruitment by many groups on campus and something that I’d seen result in some success from my predecessors. But my own involvement in the very organizations that I intended to target gave me the best tools to help bring them to The Crimson. I wanted to have more intimate conversations, too, and I spoke with countless students, in groups big and large, about why our home could be theirs, too. We held events at The Crimson in conjunction with some of the large black campus groups, sponsored celebrations and discussions, and I personally tried to engage the paper in some of the most prominent conversations about race on campus beyond our reporting of those issues.

By the time my year was done, the reality was that The Crimson as a whole didn’t look all that different than it did before I got there. But what I did notice what that some of our most prominent and hard-working leaders began to more accurately represent the makeup of the College. Though we maintained and took great pride in our independence from Harvard every day, I wanted us to look more like Harvard. When my time at The Crimson was finished, I think it did.

More than three years after the beginning of my tenure as president, though, it’s worthwhile to ask: What, if anything, has changed in the long-term? What needed to change? What long-term effect did my race have on an institution that has been around almost 140 years? Especially in an institution where the leadership changes every year, were there any lasting effects of my presence?

The Crimson is certainly more representative of the University than it was even a decade before, but as more time separates me from my tenure, I realize that it probably has little to do with me. I devoted significant time to broadly trying to increase black recruitment to the organization, and while there are more black editors than in my early years, there are more Hispanic editors, Indian editors, and Muslim editors, too. The paper’s changes are much more likely the result of the cumulative effect of a series of small changes over a number of years than it is the leadership of one man over the course of single year.

And in some ways, I’m proud of that. It tells me that it doesn’t take specific recruitment efforts or fundamental institutional changes to become a more inclusive institution. It tells me that The Crimson is bigger than any one of its editors. It tells me that factors much bigger than a newspaper—be they from the University or the broader society or some other source—are working in our favor.

And it also tells me that we probably won’t have to wait another 50 years for a black president.

Malcom A. Glenn ’09 was the president of The Crimson in 2008 and the organization’s first black president in half a century.

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