UPDATED: February 25, 2016, at 1:35 p.m.
One week in November, it all converged.
On Wednesday, the rally. Students donning all black assembled at the Science Center Plaza, performing songs and spoken word in solidarity with college activists agitating for racial equality at Yale and the University of Missouri at Columbia. Harvard President Drew G. Faust and Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana, both in black coats, blended into the crowd—but the Cambridge Police, with their neon yellow vests, stood out.
The students marched north to Porter Square, flooding Massachusetts Avenue, streetlights silhouetting their fists against the darkening indigo sky. They held hands and shouted and embraced.
“We are here. We are loved,” read one sign.
The next morning, diagonal slashes of matte tape defaced the portraits of black professors in the main corridor of Harvard Law School’s Wasserstein Hall. As the day progressed, black students and professors at the school received an outpouring of support, while some expressed an outrage that would soon culminate in student-led protests demanding racial inclusion at the Law School.
By that afternoon, the tape was gone, and the portraits were framed by colorful Post-its with words of support for the professors. The search for the perpetrator would end, unsuccessfully, less than two months later. Wasserstein Hall had no video cameras.
That same Thursday, a group of students representing the needs of Latino undergraduates—Latinx—met with Faust in her Massachusetts Hall office to discuss the institutional and cultural challenges facing Harvard’s students of color. The Saturday before, a Brown University police officer allegedly assaulted a Dartmouth delegate to the Latinx Ivy League conference after the delegate criticized the rough way the officer was handling a drunk Brown student.
“Structurally, systemically, and institutionally pervasive—our presence within our universities does not make us immune to the contingencies of what it means to be a person of color,” the conference delegates wrote in a jointly signed statement of protest.
That same morning, as if to underscore the students’ declaration, the College’s Working Group on Diversity and Inclusion released a 37-page report advising an array of reforms, from hiring more faculty and staff of color to expanding the number of courses dealing with diversity. The result of months of focus groups, interviews, and research, the report was praised and publicized by both Faust and Khurana. In a University-wide email, Faust called the report “one important foundation on which to build a more truly inclusive community,” also announcing the formation of a University-wide task force to address issues of campus diversity.
“I’m very optimistic. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be doing this,” said Jonathan L. Walton, the Pusey minister in Memorial Church and the chair of the working group. The previous year, Walton had spoken at a die-in at the Church after Sunday services, urging protesters to take action against racial inequality.
“As it relates to social change, I tend to put my money on academic institutions being in the forefront so long as they remain intellectually curious communities,” he said in an interview earlier February.
But Thanksgiving came and went, November became December, and as December left so did students, dispersing for winter break. What had briefly seemed like an unsilenceable moment at Yale and Mizzou quieted down. At Harvard, the conversation moved underground—sometimes literally, to the basement offices of the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations, but also to closed-door meetings and not-yet-defined task forces. The rhetoric and energy built over the month of November gave way to a harsh reality: Here, change doesn’t happen overnight.
“I think the four years I’ve been at Harvard have been a particularly poignant moment for the potential of racial justice transformation on campus,” said Kirin Gupta ’16, an intern at the Harvard Foundation. “But institutional change is really hard, and really expensive.”
At Harvard, a lengthy fight against racial inequality has progressed in uncertain fits and starts, both propelled and stalled by a series of competing forces. A student body diverse in its demands but unequivocal in its passion. An administration attempting to reconcile a cacophony of constituencies, taking gradual and preemptive steps to hold off the wide-scale uprising seen at other schools. In the background of it all, a University: the most exclusive in the world, a product of America’s murky racial past, inching—through no small effort—towards change.
This complicated racial moment finds its roots in Harvard’s founding. History professor Sven Beckert, in 2007, conducted a study on the University’s ties to slavery with his seminar class, discovering that early Harvard presidents often brought their slaves to live with them on campus and a portion of Harvard’s endowment was drawn from exploitation of the slave trade.
Today, Harvard must grapple with this history—reckon with the legacies behind names and symbols—as well as address the new challenges and national movements affecting an increasingly diverse student body.
“I think the Black Lives Matter movement and also the campus unrest that is linked to it are part of this historical moment’s participation in connection to a black freedom struggle that is older than the nation itself,” said Timothy P. McCarthy ’93, a lecturer in History and Literature.
What do activists want? Their demands are nuanced and diverse, including advancements both concrete and cultural. While they may diverge on the particulars, common themes have emerged: Space. Voice. Transparency. Accountability.
Many have asked for a dedicated multicultural center. The letter that the Latinx students issued to Faust, for example, demands “more than sufficient funds to create the ‘Harvard Center for Students of Color’ at a centralized location,” suggesting a floor of the Smith Campus Center be designated for affinity groups and operated by a diverse staff.
A multicultural space at Harvard would find many precedents throughout the Ivy League. Yale, Princeton, and Brown all opened cultural centers in the wake of student activism in the 1960s and ’70s, according to the diversity working group’s 2015 report. At the University of Pennsylvania, students of color find support through both an intercultural center and a network of specialized affinity offices.
“To ask for space—that speaks to a much larger structure of white domination in institutions of higher learning, in our government, our companies, our politics,” Gupta said. “There’s so much embedded marginality. The solutions that students are asking for—they solve big problems.”
According to Khurana, administrators have expressed willingness to look into buying real estate for a multicultural center, but no concrete plans have been announced so far.
In a town hall hosted by the Harvard Foundation last Sunday, Khurana cited space constraints in Harvard Square and the Yard as a limiting factor for a multicultural center. “It’s always a question of who do you displace,” he said, adding that he has worked to make the Quad’s SOCH and other campus spaces easier for student groups to reserve.
The nearest approximation to a multicultural center might be the Harvard Foundation. Established in 1981, the Foundation’s role is largely educational and integrative, centered on sponsoring intercultural programming and distributing grants to affinity groups. Its student advisory committee, comprised of representatives from around 80 campus affinity groups, parcels out its budget to student organizations. It hosts panels and town halls on topics from final clubs to affirmative action. It lauds global humanitarians and hosts the jubilant Cultural Rhythms festival, this year preceded by a week-long “dialogue series” on racial issues. Last semester, the Foundation wrote statements of solidarity with activists at the Law School, after the tape incident, and with student protesters at Yale and Mizzou.
S. Allen Counter, a neurologist at the Harvard Medical School and director of the Foundation, declined to be interviewed for this story, instead directing inquiries to the Foundation’s student interns.
In an emailed statement, Counter wrote that he “has worked very closely with supportive faculty and students for the past thirty years to create an exemplary racial climate at Harvard, and to cultivate an atmosphere of civility, inter-ethnic cooperation, and camaraderie, where ‘race’ will not be a distraction to academic pursuits.” The Foundation has “in large measure, achieved this goal,” Counter wrote, although “challenges remain.”
From its headquarters in the Thayer basement, the Foundation does what it can. But it is, in the end, a small underground office, with interns, including Cengiz Cemaloğlu ’18, suggesting that they would like to see the Foundation expand into a legitimate “hangout space” for students.
“An office with little more than two full-time staff members and a current programming budget of $25,000 was responsible, at least in theory, for all cultural programs, concerns, and educational initiatives of Harvard College’s non-white student population,” reads the report issued by Walton’s working group.
When asked directly, Counter confirmed that the 15 undergraduates who work at the Foundation are also discouraged from taking outright political stances in their work. While many interns participate in activist groups independently, the Foundation itself focuses on what Cemaloğlu called “reactionary” programming, responding to campus issues as they arise.
“We encourage students at the Harvard Foundation to focus on intercultural, interethnic and interreligious matters in programs that engender greater understanding, equity, and inclusion, because that is our mandate,” Counter wrote in an email. “However, we are aware of the intersectionality of ethno-culture and politics, and inevitability of their overlap and integration in our programs.”
The other dedicated bureau for issues of race is the Office for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, established in 2015 and led by Emelyn A. dela Peña, the College’s assistant dean of student life for equity, diversity, and inclusion. Dela Peña declined to respond to specific inquiries and instead emailed a statement in which she called the office’s work a “long-term endeavor.”
According to dela Peña, the office has spent its first year implementing a racial bias reporting system, creating a “cultural competence training program” for staff, providing workshops on microaggressions, and piloting spring break dining. Dela Peña also said the office would soon launch the “Harvard College Intergroup Dialogue Program,” aimed at bringing together groups of undergraduates to discuss topics including race and socioeconomic status.
Yet the office is still young, and, according to the Walton report, undersized for its duties. “Though having the support of the Office of Student Life, this assistant dean has oversight of two centers (Women’s Center and Office of BGLTQ Student Life) that appear to be larger than the actual office of the assistant dean in terms of staff and resources,” the report reads. Dela Peña assisted in the preparation of the report.
In many ways, the college campus is an ideal incubator for effective change, populated by intellectually energetic students capable of organizing a protest with a single email to a House list. But student activism is also a fight against time: With organizers graduating and new, uninitiated classes arriving, it can be difficult to sustain a movement in the long-term—and it can be difficult for the University to meet constantly changing demands.
“I think the University benefits from a severe lack of institutional memory amongst the student body,” said Jaime A. Cobham ’17, a Crimson editorial writer and political action chair of the Black Students Association. “We’re dealing with four-year windows.”
Another near-unanimous demand is the increased hiring of non-white faculty, suggested by the Walton report, the Latinx students, and many other activists. While FAS has instituted a hiring policy aimed at recruiting more professors of color, the Faculty still lags behind a diversifying student body.
According to the 2015 FAS annual report, “minorities” (a category including black, Latino, Asian, American Indian, Native Hawaiian, and multiracial professors) now comprise 21 percent of Harvard’s faculty—a small improvement over 2014’s 19 percent. Fewer still are female professors of color.
By contrast, 42 percent of the Class of 2019 does not identify as white.
Faculty of color are frequently called upon to advise students in both formal and informal capacities, said Brandon M. Terry ’05, a co-author of the diversity report and an assistant professor of African and African American Studies and Social Studies. Speaking at a Harvard Foundation panel on ethnic studies, Terry recalled filling out an end-of-year faculty activity report and struggling to describe his many non-academic commitments.
“I mentioned all the groups I’ve spoken at—I’ve spoken at every African American and African group on campus in the first five months—but there’s no way to really convey that that involves labor on a form. It’s just a dash,” he said. “There’s no, ‘I talked with them, we hung out for four hours after that and they explained to me all the stuff they’re going through.’”
Outside of the classroom, some students are calling on Harvard’s Counseling and Mental Health Services to hire more clinicians of color, citing the disproportionate incidence of mental health issues among underrepresented groups. Recently, Indigo—a new peer counseling group focused on the intersection of race, class, and mental health and advised by HUHS mental health counselors—opened in the basement of Adams House.
Walton also said Houses can vary in the diversity of their tutors, drawn from a pool of graduate students which can be as racially skewed as the faculty.
“People are treated differently in different houses,” Walton said. “Students felt that if the point of randomizing the house system is to make sure that people from all different walks of life come into contact with each other, why do some feel like they’re being put into staid house cultures?”
Adams House co-Master Judith S. Palfrey ’67 agreed, adding that discrepancies between Houses become especially apparent when it comes to tutor hiring. In Dunster House, for example, a Crimson story cited in the Walton report found a lack of in-House staff and support for BGLTQ students.
Demand for curricular change, too, has been ongoing but slow moving.
Many students have asked for a diversity studies requirement in the undergraduate curriculum. As the program on General Education undergoes a makeover in coming months, students are pushing for required courses in gender and ethnicity.
Still, it is likely that a Gen Ed overhaul, let alone one that meets students’ wishes, will take some time. FAS Dean Michael D. Smith has said that implementing a renewed Gen Ed program at the beginning of the 2016-2017 academic year would be “extremely difficult,” although a review committee was originally convened in early 2014. As of the latest report, required courses on gender and ethnicity are not included in the provisional program, although some courses under this umbrella are offered through Gen Ed. It is unlikely that a diversity requirement will appear in the new program, though: Gen Ed review committee chair and Philosophy professor Sean D. Kelly warned against creating narrow Gen Ed categories at a FAS meeting in December.
At the Foundation’s panel on ethnic studies, Mayra Rivera Rivera—a Divinity School professor who works on the Ethnicity, Migration, Rights Committee—said the Committee will conduct a seminar to consider designing a required Gen Ed course on the construction and manifestations of ethnicity that would be an option, not a requirement, for undergraduates.
Harvard has publicly touted its ethnically and globally diverse student body, Diana K. Nguyen ’15, a former EMR student coordinator with a secondary in the program, said. Nguyen said she believes, however, that Harvard contradicts itself by not offering an equally diverse curriculum.
“Does that mean that the diversity of students is important, but the diversity of academics isn’t?” she asked, speaking at the same Harvard Foundation panel. “I find it very difficult to say that just having diverse students, but not providing those diverse students with diverse classes, shows that you value diversity.”
While Harvard’s African and African American Studies department hasachieved national renown after decades of development, for Latino, Asian American, Native American, and Pacific Islander students especially, creating departments and degree programs for their respective cultural groups has been an uphill battle. Currently, students can concentrate in History and Literature with a focus on Latin America, or specialize in Latino studies only through a secondary concentration offered through Harvard’s Committee on Ethnicity, Migration, Rights. The Committee founded a working group last year to explore a similar program for Asian American studies. A Native American studies department still remains on the table.
Because EMR is a committee with small footholds in many established departments, though, the program faces difficulties in bringing its affiliates together to advocate for its growth. Nguyen says the underdevelopment of Harvard’s ethnic studies programs is “a chicken and egg problem.” Because the EMR Committee is underresourced, it struggles to accurately gauge student interest and make a case for expansion.
Others ask that briefings on race and diversity occur from the very beginning of a Harvard education, through more in-depth conversations on issues of race and diversity during Opening Days, an orientation period for freshmen. Currently, freshmen are asked to read and discuss a text on identity for 90 minutes during Opening Days, with a stated goal of learning “about your peers’ diverse identities and perspectives.”
“We’re not asking people to dig deep,” said Kia C. Turner ’16. “At the end of the day, I think that’s crazy because the people who are feeling uncomfortable on this campus feel it all four years, and we can’t ask people to feel uncomfortable for more than an hour and a half?”
The current movement for racial inclusivity on campus is multifaceted and Faust—typically removed from the nuances of undergraduate life—has increasingly become involved. After the release of the College-centered Walton report, Faust announced she would heed the report’s call to form an unprecedented University-wide task force studying issues of diversity. In early February, Faust said she was still working to define the mission and identify members of the task force, but said it would likely be modeled on the existing sexual assault task force.
As the University’s chief administrator, Faust is primarily tasked with running the Harvard Corporation and conducting fundraising campaigns. Yet in the past few years, and especially in recent months, Faust and other administrators have hosted both small gatherings and town halls to discuss racial grievances and possible remedies.
In 2014, Faust met with some participants of of “I, Too, Am Harvard,” a powerful multimedia campaign started by Kimiko M. Matsuda-Lawrence ’16 that received national attention and sparked a campus-wide conversation about racial inclusion at Harvard. That meeting, according to Faust, provided the impetus for the Working Group on Diversity and Inclusion’s report, released the next year.
After the Brown campus police brutality incident at the Latinx Ivy League Conference in 2015, Faust invited around a dozen Latinx students to her Massachusetts Hall office to discuss a wide-ranging list of demands, including a multicultural space and more ethnic studies offerings.
Another clause invited Faust to a February Latinx town hall hosted by Concilio Latino, an umbrella group for the College’s many Latinx student organizations. Though Faust, scheduled during that time for a dinner with the Harvard Alumni Association’s Board of Elected Directors, did not attend, Khurana and interim Dean of Student Life Thomas A. Dingman ’67 did. Several activists interviewed, including Itzel L. Vasquez-Rodriguez ’17, co-chair of Concilio Latino, characterized Khurana as a sympathetic supporter within the administration.
“The one thing I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find is that administrators have been receptive to listening to Latinx leaders on campus,” said Ruben Reyes ’19, a Latinx conference delegate. “A part of me thinks that this is a result of them wanting to prevent an escalation of events on campus, but a larger side of me does believe they want to listen to our concerns.” Like all students interviewed for this story, Reyes emphasized that he was only expressing his own views, and not speaking for all Latinx students.
Later that semester, Khurana and Faust convened a gathering of what Faust estimated to be 20 to 25 campus affinity group leaders at Phillips Brooks House in response to the Walton report. According to David O. Daniel ’17, president of the Black Men’s Forum, the attendees discussed the slow progress of initiatives including expanding ethnic studies and founding a multicultural center.
“I’m really grateful to all the student leaders who have been so forthcoming and engaged and had such terrific ideas about how to solve a set of problems that matter so much to all of us,” Faust said after the meeting. “I hope we can keep making progress, and have enough progress and enough sense of trust that we’re going to continue to make progress, so that we don’t have to resort to the kind of disruptions that we’ve seen elsewhere.”
Perhaps the most immediate change to come from these discussions, though, was buried in a subpoint —section III, article V— of the Latinx students’ three-page missive where they requested the elimination of the Harvard’s historic House master title.
Introduced with Harvard’s transition to the House system in the 30’s, the “House master” title—derived from the Latin magister and rooted in the traditions of the medieval European universities—is one of many lingering emblems of Harvard’s 380-year past. While most Harvardisms (“concentrations” for majors, “Houses” for dorms) seem innocuous, this one engendered controversy.
In December, Khurana informed the Faculty of Arts and Sciences that the masters of the College’s undergraduate Houses had decided to change their title because of its perceived associations with slavery. Khurana, a House master himself, said in December that the title made him personally uncomfortable. Shortly thereafter, he announced that all 24 masters chose unanimously to search for a less controversial replacement. Smith wrote in an email to undergraduates and FAS members Wednesday that the new title would be “Faculty Dean.”
Still, the ensuing uproar—a chorus of praise and criticism, fueled by breathless national media coverage—exemplifies the struggle of enacting even a relatively minor, nominal change at Harvard.
Soon, the backlash began. Critics of the change—including The Crimson’s Editorial Board, in an article entitled “No Masterstroke”—charged Harvard with ignoring the title’s more innocuous etymology.
“I think that the decision unfortunately reflects a misunderstanding and perhaps ignorance of the origins of the term,” said Peter L. Malkin ’55, a philanthropist and namesake of the Malkin Athletic Center. “I think it has to be or should be a very serious reason, a very material reason for making any change.”
But “words are powerful,” Khurana said, defending the change. “We try to do as much as we can in the short term.” Palfrey, the Adams House co-Master, added that she sees the change as a signal of solidarity with Harvard’s undergraduate students of color, adding that, for many, the term was “painful” regardless of its actual origins.
When Smith announced the change on Wednesday, he acknowledged that “titles send a message.” Still, he wrote in his email, the House Master title “ is and will remain a part of the College’s long and proud history” and is not necessarily directly related to slavery.
Within Harvard, some continue to question the politics of the decision. One of the most dangerous trends in academia, said Government professor Harvey C. Mansfield ’53, is the tendency to “placate students instead of educate them.” In January, Mansfield wrote The Crimson a flippant letter to the editor mocking the move.
“This was a reprehensible change, I think, without any sufficient reason,” he said. “It’s out of nowhere—out of discomfort of those masters who look to make that kind of association.”
Before long, Faust—herself a Civil War historian—was called to weigh in. While Faust was not involved with the initial decision, she said she supported the move and that questions about the title had “been in the air for a long time, probably a decade or so at least.”
The debate, said Faust, “has focused on gender and female House masters feeling a little strange about this very gendered title. And so there’s been kind of continuing discussion and the issues of—does it mean mastery over people, in ways that are not consistent with how we understand those communities? And then, most explicitly, recently the racial overtones of the word master.”
Reyes disagreed with Mansfield. “Many administrators and students of color alike have felt uncomfortable about the title, so there is definitely a chunk of the student body that will embrace the title change as a step forward,” he said. “I personally don’t think it’s a change made simply to placate students.”
A few weeks after Khurana announced the House master title would change, the Office for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion launched a similarly intended but controversial initiative. In a number of dining halls, the Office installed “Holiday Placemats for Social Justice,” laminated guides with tips for discussing topics like student activism at Yale and the Syrian refugee crisis with families over winter break. The placemat guide proposed hypothetical statements on each topic and offered a possible response to each: In the House master section, for example, the question “Why did they change the name? What does a housemaster have to do with slavery?” suggested the answer, “Given the name is offensive to groups of people, it doesn’t seem onerous to change it.”
While both the Office for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion and the Freshman Dean’s Office initially endorsed the placemats as a piece of “passive programming” intended to help students navigate difficult topics, backlash from students and attention from national media outlets eventually forced a retreat. Within a few days, the Harvard Republican Club had created a series of parody posters criticizing the placemats’ one-sided presentation of the issues and “strawman arguments.”
Gwen R. Thomas ’17, current president of the Republican Club, said that while she does not oppose racial justice, she was troubled that an official Harvard office would distribute what she called a “condescending” and one-sided document.
“We as a club were thinking that this really leaves out a large group of students, including others who might disagree with not even all, but some of the points of the placemat,” she said. “It’s really being exclusive to anyone who wants to talk about these things. There was definitely a thought of, ‘This could just be the beginning.’”
Crimson editorial executive Idrees M. Kahloon ’16 appeared on Don Lemon’s CNN program condemning the placemats as emblematic of a broader movement to stifle free speech on campus.
“I think you have students who are saying that they are very uncomfortable with opposing views and that they want the university to step in place and to basically protect them,” Kahloon said. “There is this new conjured-up right that you have the right to not be offended and you have the right to not be uncomfortable.”
Within a week, Dingman and then-Dean of Student Life Stephen Lassonde sent a College-wide email apologizing for the placemats, acknowledging that they “failed to account for the many viewpoints that exist on our campus.” Faust agreed in an interview that the placemats were “a really bad idea.”
When asked about their priorities, few activists would put the House master title change or the placemats at the top, although many agree that symbolic changes are small but necessary steps in forging significant institutional advancement. Still, as the House masters deliberate on a new title into the spring and the placemat debacle fades, some students say they believe deeper systemic issues of race and inclusivity at Harvard have gone largely unnoticed.
“It’s a good thing that [the name] changed because I would feel uncomfortable living under a ‘master,’ but that’s not changing the nuts and bolts of this university,” Cobham said.
“If we’re talking about what students of color are actually asking for at the heart of these conversations, they’re not small asks,” agreed Gupta, the Foundation intern. “What people are responding to are the small concessions that the administration are giving. What students want is much bigger than what Harvard is currently responding to.”
These small concessions, said Mansfield, “seem to be a kind of preemptive surrender” on the part of the administration.
But if a multicultural center, a more diverse faculty, and a broader ethnic studies curriculum aren’t immediately actionable, the title change—and the social justice placemats, and the Office for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion—are at least small indications that Harvard’s administration is trying to stay on the activists’ side.
Last semester in New Haven, a sizable group of students visibly and vocally turned on Yale administrators after Silliman College associate master Erika L. Christakis, a former Pforzheimer House master, sent an email defending students’ rights to wear Halloween costumes that some construed as offensive or culturally appropriative. That email, coupled with allegations that a Yale fraternity held a “white girls only” party, touched off a wave of protests at Yale with reverberations throughout the country.
While many Harvard students have expressed solidarity with their peers at Yale, demonstrations in Cambridge have been more subdued. Demands are largely expressed through smaller town halls and meetings, not college-wide rallies.
Behind all the rivalry, Yale and Harvard are two incredibly similar universities—so similar, in fact, that some have wondered: Why not here?
Aaron I. Henricks ’16, former president of the Harvard Republican Club, said he believes the administration has used fast-tracked initiatives like the House master name change and the placemats to stave off more visible protests. “I think the University responded so quickly to avoid becoming Yale or Mizzou,” Henricks said. “At Mizzou, applications are down and PR is down the toilet. But has Harvard actually helped the school? I don’t know.”
Cobham, along with several other students, said Christakis’s email ignited a campuswide discussion and movement around racial issues in a way not yet seen at Harvard.
“They had a very high profile single issue, which then also creates a huge amount of pressure. Those things become very public and very salient for a lot of people not just on those campuses but around the country, so change is going to come,” Cobham said. “For us, I think the administration does a very good job—or a much better job—of being proactive and reaching out to students.”
Faust, though, isn’t counting her chickens. “Part of it is circumstance, part of it is just some incident throws a lighted match into a barn full of hay, and I feel that the interactions that I’ve had with undergraduates and that I’ve seen generally have been really constructive and positive and based in excellent exchange that I think can move us forward in important ways and are very effective interactions,” she said. “So I’m really pleased about that. But I can’t guarantee that something might not set it off in a different direction.”
Many students interviewed agreed that widely publicized police brutality incidents against people of color have noticeably catalyzed and energized both campus activists and their opponents over the past year.
At Harvard Law School, perhaps the present epicenter of racial activism across Harvard’s schools, discussions on racial inclusivity have accelerated over the past year and garnered national attention. What began as students’ discomfort over the Law School’s seal—which features the family crest of Isaac Royall Jr., a slaveholder who financed the establishment of the Law School—culminated in a list of demands to the school’s dean Martha L. Minow in December. The demands, issued by a group now called Reclaim Harvard Law School, asked for substantive changes to both curriculum and culture at HLS.
Reclaim Harvard Law School’s petition asks Minow to acknowledge the school’s controversial history, including a removal of the Royall family crest on the school’s seal. Curricularly, it demands both the creation of a critical race theory program and that professors undergo cultural sensitivity trainings. In mid-February, Law School activists took up residence in a major campus thoroughfare, calling the lounge “Belinda Hall” after one of Royall’s slaves.
“Having to deal with that shield every day, to be under a thing that fundamentally devalues, is undignified in a very visceral sense that a lot of white students probably can’t understand,” said Alexander J. Clayborne, a third-year Law student who helps organize campus activist efforts. “It’s that contradiction between an institution that says it’s all about diversity and inclusion, saying, ‘come into the doors of HLS, everybody,’ but then you have this symbol up here. You’re not fulfilling what you say you’re going to do.”
Claybourne is frustrated with what he says is a lack of institutional action on the group’s demands, and says numerous administrators, professors, and Harvard Corporation members—who have the final say behind the seal’s change— have been happy to talk but reluctant to commit to real action.
Dean Minow has created a committee to reconsider the seal, and wrote in an email to Law School affiliates that she would be thinking about the proposals.
“I listened carefully,” Minow wrote. “I will do my best to ensure that we find ways to work together, joining students, staff, and faculty to address proposals and above all to strengthen this School and its possibilities to be better and to make the world better.”
Over in Longwood, a group of Harvard Medical and Dental School students are also petitioning the University to diversify the faculty and student body as the Medical School searches for a new dean.
In early February, 40 members of a group called the “Racial Justice Coalition,” donning lab coats, entered Massachusetts Hall to deliver the petition to Faust, though she was not in the building to receive it.
Just last week, epidemiologist Michelle A. Williams was named the next dean of the Harvard School of Public Health. She will be the first black person to lead a faculty in Harvard’s history.
At the College, the launch of Renegade, an arts and advocacy magazine by and for Harvard students of color, was marked by controversy. As members distributed posters around the Houses that publicized the magazine, others mocked the posters with antagonistic slogans. “Because Mather owned slaves,” read one Renegade poster. “Because all white men are racist,” a parody read.
According to Gupta, who has been involved in Renegade since its inception, the publication seeks to empower students of color through visual art, music, and the written word.
“It’s a manifold project: community building, political action, making an expression of trauma in the POC experience from the small to large scale,” she said. “That’s what Renegade is trying to do—to find that connective tissue and use art and music and writing, to show with artistic production what is in common, what is created by a structure of domination.”
Nearly a year later, Renegade hasn’t stopped creating. In November, just before the week of tumult, they published an issue full of “love letters” for POC activists on campuses across the country. This semester, Jenny A. Gathright ’16, a former Crimson editorial writer and a founder of Renegade, launched “Black Magic,” a play at Loeb theater featuring an entirely black cast.
“It seems like there are these very occasional moments when you see people realizing that these issues that they face in their own communities are issues that are actually shared. I think those are all too rare moments in Harvard’s history,” said Moses Kim ’18, a Renegade contributor. “The entire premise of Renegade was that this was a space for people of color to come together and draw on each other’s powers.”
There’s a deeper concern behind the phenomenon of Renegade that administrators have been reluctant to address: What if diversity isn’t enough?
“Diversity” is the buzzword of task forces and offices, and a major selling point of the undergraduate experience. Often, it’s accompanied by “inclusion,” and together they paint a hopeful, pluralist picture worthy of a Harvard brochure.
In November, Harvard filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court affirmative action case Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin declaring its commitment to a diverse student body; Faust has publicly pledged her dedication to the use of affirmative action in Harvard’s admissions processes. Diversity, said Faust said earlier this month, is “just inseparable from excellence,” adding that Harvard is the most diverse place that many of its students have lived or will ever live.
But perhaps one of Renegade’s most radical acts, and a reason why the magazine inspired such virulent criticism in its nascent days, is that it has dared to make a case for exclusivity—for a space apart from white people.
Kim, a poet, has spent a lot of time thinking about who is listened to at Harvard and who isn’t.
“I think too often diversity is thrown out there as this neutering force,” Kim said. “Diversity is throwing people into a room and presuming that every voice will have equal space.”
Separate cultural spaces should have a legitimate place in campus life, McCarthy agreed. “The anxiety over those culturally specific spaces says more about the people who are anxious about them than those who are calling for them,” he said, recalling how he wouldn’t think of accompanying his black roommates to the Black Students Association’s meetings as an undergraduate. “Sometimes queer people don’t want to be around straight folks, sometimes women don’t want to be around men, sometimes people of color don’t want to be around white people. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
But equally, if not more necessary, agreed Faust, Walton, and McCarthy, are spaces for what Faust called “bridging and belonging”—reaching out to those unlike themselves to overcome cultural divides.
“It doesn’t mean that everybody has to have every moment of their life in interaction with every other kind of person who’s at Harvard, but it does mean we don’t want to have circumstances where people are isolated or separated from one another, but rather experiences that give them strength for bridging out to others,” Faust said. She’s trying to find the balance between resilience and safety, she said, and worries that separatism could “incapacitate” students after they graduate.
Cary A. Williams ’16, former president of the Association of Black Harvard Women, said she understands being at Harvard entails engaging with people of different backgrounds and praises the randomized housing system for institutionalizing diversity.
Still, she said, “I do believe that folks of different identities do need a space where they feel like they can go home to breathe if they think that they need that. I don’t think it’s anything about backing down from a challenge or not wanting to engage: we do the work of engaging every day, just like all students.”
Walton, the chair of the diversity task force, questioned the rhetoric of inclusion—he said it implied a Harvard that is “finished and complete,” slotting students into a static structure—but argued that the “beauty of Harvard is that it’s the sum of all of its diverse parts.” He is sympathetic to Kim’s concerns of erasure, he said, but believes that separate spaces for identity groups can and should cut across racial lines.
“We were really committed to identifying places of exclusion and finding ways that we can make cultures of belonging,” Walton said. “If you are an African American Jewish lesbian from Senegal, heck, there are spaces on this campus and this campus as a whole where you can feel comfortable being all of your multiple beautiful parts.”
Kim says he knows that a Harvard built on separation would fall apart, but believes that a broader cultural shift—diversity with an emphasis on listening to the less privileged—would go a long way towards remedying what he half-jokingly called the “section kid meme.”
“[I want to] reconcile the very real and very legitimate pain that people feel on this campus, and work towards an understanding for people who haven’t had those experiences,” he said. “A reason a lot of us are here is because we’re able to speak over a lot of people. Structurally and pedagogically, there’s not a weight being put on how to listen.”
Diversity and inclusion seem to be aspects of a Harvard education that its leadership holds dear. From sitting down with affinity groups to forming task forces, working groups, and new offices, many administrators are trying their hands at making students’ experiences—regardless of race, ethnicity, or background—of equal quality. But in speaking to activists and allies, one thing is clear: changes that Harvard’s students of color want reach far beyond changing titles and etching buildings’ names out of stone.
“Institutions have built into them a certain kind of inertia, a bureaucracy that resists social change,” McCarthy said. “That’s why you need campus activists to rise up and demand the things they do.”
It’s February now, and the Yard where protesters have marched and stood and lain for years is without grass. Flock of tourists shuffle by the statue and snap a few photos of “John Harvard.” Rubs the dull gold foot. The bronze-cast man in their photos isn’t really John Harvard, as anyone who’s passed within 20 feet of a “Hahvahd” tour guide could tell you. He’s a student, his likeness immortalized for its apparent similarity to those of “the early comers to our shores.”
He doesn’t look like Harvard: not the man, and certainly not the University today in all of its messy and vital multiplicity. Sitting sentry for over a century, he’s seen his share of setbacks and injustices. But also: a transformation, hard-fought, that looks—from the distant vantage of history—something like progress.
“We won’t see immediate change in this place, because that’s not something that Harvard does,” Cobham said. “It’s been here long before us and will be here long after we’re dead.”
That doesn’t mean that he’s giving up, though. Nor is Walton, sounding spirited on a Friday afternoon over the phone.
“I don’t like to use the word ‘optimistic’—there’s a certain inevitability to optimism that I think belies how social change happens, because there’s a level of commitment and determination that’s needed,” Walton said.
“Maybe I’ll put it—I’m hopeful. I have hope.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
CORRECTION: February 25, 2016
A previous version of this article stated “Black Magic,” a play featuring an entirely black cast, ran at LoebX theater. In fact, it ran at Loeb mainstage.