Voicing Controversial Views

Lawrence Watson

Perhaps the first clue to Lawrence Watson's unique blend of professionalism and passionate advocacy can be found sitting on the coffee table outside his light-filled office in Gund Hall.

Resting discreetly amidst a pile of Graduate School of Design newsletters is a copy of what most would consider a fairly obscure publication, the Harvard Affirmative Action Newsletter.

The publication--actually a fairly dry compilation of news briefs about affirmative action in the University's various faculties--seems incongruous in the office of a Harvard dean, most of whom studiously avoid reference to the thorny tangle of issues raised by the hiring of women and minorities.

But not Watson, the GSD's assistant dean for academic administration. As he put it in a recent interview, "I don't just see my position here at Harvard as just a job--it's a commitment." Watson's longstanding professional commitment to diversity in hiring is the extension of his personal commitment to achieving success while affirming his own difference.

The co-chair of the Association of Black Faculty and Administrators for the past two years, Watson has emerged as a major new carrier of the affirmative action flame in the University--meeting with deans, writing reports, speaking to undergraduates. And implementing diverse hiring practices at the GSD, where his post as an assistant dean gives him the chance to influence decisions about both faculty and staff.


Many of Watson's colleagues credit him with revitalizing the Association of Black Faculty and Administrators, a group that has become considerably more visible during his two-year stint as its co-chair. Last fall, the association released a report, written by Professor of Law Derrick A. Bell, which called on the University to raise its representation of minorities on the faculty and staff to 10 percent by 1990.

The report drew attention in the national press, and Bell says that although he wrote the report, Watson was "greatly responsible" for building up consensus for it among Harvard's Black professionals.

According to Bell and others, Watson's ability to muster support as a vocal advocate of affirmative action is unique at the University. Watson, they say, is unusual in that he is an administrator who doesn't hesitate to take on the administration.

"He feels deeply about racial issues, and he is willing to speak out and put himself behind his positions," Bell says. "That's one thing for an individual like me, in a tenured position, but it's another thing for an administrator."

But Watson's forthrightness hasn't always had such positive consequences.

When he spoke at a panel for Actively Working Against Racism and Ethnocentrism--AWARE--week earlier this spring, Watson unknowingly embroiled himself in a controversy that would eventually result in letters to his superiors asking that he be fired.

The panel, on "Classroom Sensitivity: The Experience of Teaching and Learning," and Watson's comments during it, appeared at the end of a New Republic article blasting AWARE week.

Watson was quoted as saying, "Overreacting and being paranoid is the only way we can deal with this system...Never think you imagined [racial insensitivity], because chances are that you didn't.

What he actually said, according to Watson, is that "many people say" overreacting and being paranoid are the only ways of coping withthe system.

The experience of being misrepresented, and ofnot being perceived as a "team player," havefrustrated Watson in his attempts to changeUniversity policy and personal practice.