Amid Tensions, University Battled Gender, Racial Issues

The lyrics from a Stevie Wonder song blared across Leverett House’s dining hall from a boombox while Aya de Leon ’89 and her friends listened to the words.

“I just never understood,” Wonder sang. “How a man who died for good would not have a day that would be set aside for his recognition. Happy birthday to you.”

It was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday and de Leon had chosen the Wonder song to commemorate the strides the visionary had taken during the Civil Rights movement.

De Leon remembered a senior administrator approaching her friends and brusquely insisting they turn off the music, seemingly oblivious to the occasion.

Only a few hours later, the same administrator rapped on her door and proceeded to apologize profusely for his mistake, while de Leon stood in the doorway, laundry and clutter strewn around her room.

“It was one of those moments where I just felt deeply uncomfortable racially,” de Leon noted, recalling how vulnerable she felt.

The incident speaks to a wider trend on campus during 1988 and 1989. Many minority students felt marginalized by the University while administrators walked on eggshells, tiptoeing around racial issues.

Some student activists felt that the legacy of discrimination at Harvard before the Civil Rights era still loomed large.

But it was not only racial minorities who felt ignored by the University. Many women at Harvard College also felt marginalized. Radcliffe women had once been banned from Lamont Library and, according to the Radcliffe Student Union website, were required to clean the dorms of male students living around Harvard Yard.

Discrimination had taken a slightly more subtle tack by 1989. It was a glass ceiling that now prevented women from acquiring the most prestigious and coveted professorships or reaching the upper echelons of the faculty and administration. During 1988, the University began to make efforts to change the face of an administration still dominated by white men by making several strategic appointments to high profile positions.

Those efforts signaled to some that the University had begun to recognize the role that minorities ought to play at Harvard. Others claimed that the University had not done enough.

Harvard students rallied behind movements demanding change on campus, sparking a wave of dialogue and discussion over the treatment of minorities and women at the College.


Three decades had passed since the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, which desegregated American public schools and prompted sweeping civil rights legislation. The wave of reforms included the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited employment discrimination among other things.

Yet Harvard only employed a few faculty members who were either women or minorities.