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End Academic Inequity

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WHEN money talks, people listen.

But this spring as Harvard sets priorities for an upcoming multi-billion dollar fundraising drive, we hope the University will pause long enough to consider those issues that money does not talk about.

University administrators have billed the capital campaign as Harvard's blueprint for the future, saying that the decisions made now will inform the identity and goals of this institution for decades to come. Still, as deans and their committees decide what Harvard should spend money on in the coming years, most University fundraisers acknowledge that these academic decisions will be tempered by external and nonacademic financial considerations. What donors are willing to fund and how those donors envision Harvard may well affect the real outcome of the University's academic priorities.

We assert, however, that the apparent fundability of projects must not be the primary scale used to build the Harvard of the 21st century. Some of Harvard's fields and programs, though they may represent a sizable body of important scholarship, are less glamorous, less publicized and less funded than others. Harvard has to realize that fundraising decisions made now could further institutionalize this inequity in the future.

AT Harvard--the most wealthy and one of the most prestigious universities in the nation--academic decisions, for better or for worse, have broad educational and social implications. When some fields are continually nurtured and others blatantly neglected, Harvard sends a message to the academic community, the media and to its students that reflects a certain set of prejudices about knowledge and scholarly pursuit. The rich alumni whom Harvard targets for fundraising are a product of a social and educational milieu that does not cultivate an interest in many long-neglected areas of scholarly inquiry.

One of these fields, African Studies, stands as a case in point. Although the African continent contains more than 40 countries and is the origin of countless aspects of American culture, the field remains largely neglected at Harvard. Interestingly enough, Africa--unlike Eastern Europe, for instance--holds little opportunity for American investment and Western economic expansion. It seems no coincidence that Africa, which receives largely negative media attention, is not targeted as a top priority for the University's capital campaign.

Although we are not suggesting that areas like Eastern Europe should be handicapped by growth in other previously ignored fields, the Harvard community cannot ignore the extent to which these academic decisions reflect certain social, racial and economic disparities in American society. Harvard should not restrict its efforts to building East Asian studies or German studies just because the people who have money are interested in these fields.

Money talks, but University administrators can talk back.

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