Out of Many, One Harvard

Action and probing self-examination must follow the diversity report

A week before Thanksgiving, Harvard College’s Working Group on Diversity and Inclusion released a long-awaited report assessing whether all of the College’s students “benefit equally” from Harvard’s educational and residential environment. The report represents a significant work of institutional introspection: Its overview of peer institutions’ policies on inclusion and its identification of ways in which Harvard currently fails to live up to its own aspirations make its specific short-term recommendations ripe for serious consideration. Perhaps even more crucial are the longer-term questions the report poses for future reforms of residential living, academic departments, and administrative offices. These structural ideas should serve as a basis for the College to address more deeply embedded issues surrounding identity and ensure the continued fulfillment of its promises of inclusion.

A particular strength of the report is its focus on practical changes that have the potential to immediately improve the College’s environment. One of the working group’s proposals, implemented last year, was the elimination of specific lines for Student Events Fund tickets, which had created a stigma around eligible students. Implementing more such ideas mentioned in the report would help to eliminate the “unnecessary markers of social distinction” that can interfere with building an inclusive community. The report’s immediate academic recommendations are similarly targeted. Clearer academic pathways for students from different backgrounds, better resources for underrepresented students, and a more intuitive listing of courses that directly address diversity are all relatively simple initiatives that would ensure that Harvard’s academic life is in concert with its institutional philosophy.

While immediate changes represent a key facet of the report, they must not overshadow the longer-term questions in the document’s final pages. These issues will provoke harder conversations, but represent an equally pressing area of attention. In residential life, housemasters must address what the report identifies as “the lack of clear policies…and consistency across houses.” Academic departments must continually revisit the role of diversity in their fields and the ways in which hiring, mentoring, and advising may reinforce existing disparities. And administrators must investigate seriously the working group’s contention that the current structure of diversity and inclusion offices requires “streamlining” and reform. Moreover, the University must continue to discuss and revisit each of these issues moving forward.

The report, however, is not without flaws: Though understandably focused on racial and socioeconomic diversity, it should have done more to address issues surrounding gender identity, sexual orientation, and, particularly, ability. While the report mentions all these elements to varying degrees, more focus on specific areas of reform would have been welcome. This concern is especially germane for people with disabilities, given Harvard’s long-term challenges with accessibility.

Despite this issue, the Working Group’s report is a laudable call to action for all members of the University community. As the report quotes Harvard law professor Randall L. Kennedy, “Harvard, too, has been indelibly scarred by slavery, exclusion, segregation, and other forms of racist oppression,” to say nothing of other kinds of oppression. Put simply, the Harvard bubble has never been closed off from the problems of the wider world. With an eye towards both the report’s long-term and short-term proposals, the current generation of Harvard students, faculty, and administrators can move our institution closer to the aspirational goals that to which its mission commits us.

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