At the close of a semester that saw a surge in racial tensions on college campuses nationwide, Harvard outfitted a number of dining halls with laminated guides printed with what purports to be advice for students discussing issues related to race and diversity with family members, but that some undergraduates decried as telling them what to think politically.
Adapted from a similar guide published by an activist group called Showing Up for Racial Justice, the placemats address controversial topics including student activism about race at Yale and other colleges, the debate over whether the U.S. should welcome Syrian refugees, and Harvard’s recent decision to change the title of its “House master” position.
Dubbed “Holiday Placemat for Social Justice” and described as “a placemat guide for holiday discussions on race and justice with loved ones,” the placemats pose hypothetical statements on those topics and offer a “response” to each of those in a question and answer format. For example, under a section entitled “Yale/Student Activism,” the placemat poses the question, “Why are Black students complaining? Shouldn’t they be happy to be in college?” and suggests that students respond by saying, “When I hear students expressing their experiences on campus I don’t hear complaining.”
In the center of the placemat are what it calls “tips for talking to families,” with recommendations such as “Listen mindfully before formulating a thoughtful response” and “Breathe.”
The placemats are endorsed by Harvard administrators. The product of a collaboration between the College’s Office for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion and the Freshman Dean’s Office, the placemats first appeared in Annenberg last week. Jasmine M. Waddell, the freshman resident dean for Elm Yard, described the placemats’ goal as giving freshmen strategies for discussing those issues with their families over winter break.
“This is a way to say, ‘You’ve been exposed to a lot of different ideas, and particularly in this moment when there’s a lot of discussion about various topics, you’re going to go home and you may or may not be able to speak the same language,’” Waddell said. “It’s not that you have to believe in what’s on the placemat, but it gives you some tools to be able to have productive conversations.”
Waddell added that the Freshman Dean’s Office decided against emailing the placemats directly to students, instead installing them in Annenberg without comment as a piece of “passive programming.”
Some students, such as Ivraj S. Seerha ’19, praised the placemats and their stances; other were not so positive.
Aaron I. Henricks ’16 said he found the publication of the placemats by an official Harvard office “beyond inappropriate and arrogant,” criticizing their one-sided presentation of “highly debateable subjects.” The placemats offer a single response to each proposed question.
“I don’t think that’s the place of any Harvard employee to tell students the right way to think about the Syrian refugee crisis. That’s ridiculous to me,” Henricks said, referencing a statement on the placemat that reads “Racial justice involves welcoming Syrian refugees.”
Emelyn A. dela Peña, the College’s assistant dean of student life for equity, diversity, and inclusion, said the placemats do not express any official positions of the College. Still, she said their recommendations are in line with recent statements Harvard administrators have made in support of students of color.
“We’ve expressed support for black students on campus very visibly, for Muslim students during a time that’s difficult for them, and the House masters themselves voted to change their title,” dela Peña said. “I think the sentiments in the placemat are in line with the spirit of things that have been expressed to students.”
Dela Peña also maintained that they are not forcing students to hold any one opinion.
“It’s not about stifling opinion, but about giving us a starting point,” dela Peña said. “Some students might not find it helpful, and that’s OK too. But if they’re sparking dialogue across campus or even just in the dining hall, I think we’ve done a good job by helping students to have difficult conversations.”
Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman ’67 acknowledged that some statements on the placemats, such as the one on Syria, may be controversial, but said others, like the quadrant defending Yale student activists, were more rooted in fairness than politics.
Waddell, too, maintained that the placements are “residential education but not indoctrination.”
Dela Peña said she received positive feedback on the placemats from freshmen like Seerha, prompting her to forward them to the masters of Harvard’s 12 undergraduate residential Houses. A number of Houses, including Dunster, Currier, and Mather, elected to print the placemats or display them on television screens in their dining halls.—Staff writer Daphne C. Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @daphnectho.