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Minority Groups Seek Student Center

News Feature

By Elizabeth J. Riemer

The Coalition for Diversity's original nine-point list of demands included a vague call for the University to increase "the resources available to 'minority' student communities."

In a meeting before the spring recess, the coalition decided to push for a more concrete demand--a multicultural center--according to coalition spokesperson Richard Garcia '95.

The coalition members have not yet addressed the issue with University administrators in the meetings they have had with them. The center seems now to be rising on their agenda.

"We're going to go for it," Garcia says. "We'll gauge the responses, and we'll probably keep going for it anyway. Even if not next year, we expect to have a multicultural center soon."

The coalition's demand for a multicultural center coincides with the start in construction of Harvard-Radcliffe Hillel's new Rosovsky Hall, an independently-funded $8 million project which the group has planned for several years.

For many minority student leaders, the sound of construction crews and the imminent vacancy of thte present Hillel building on Mt. Auburn St. serve as focal points for their own efforts to obtain a multicultural student center on campus.

"We look at Hillel and see how their center has been so beneficial to their community," says Zaheer R. Ali '94, president of the Black Student Association and one of the organizers of the coalition. "Actually, the Hillel is a good model for the type of relationship we could have with the University and with the Cambridge community."

Asian American Association co-chair Joan R. Cheng '95 sees a more concrete opportunity in the Hillel construction. She points to the soon-to-be-vacant Hillel building at 74 Mt. Auburn St. as a possible sight of a multicultural center. Harvard owns the building.

"Other issues have come to the forefront and displaced it," Cheng says of the recent attention given to faculty diversity and ethnic studies. "But now that the Hillel building is open, maybe that's our opportunity."

Garcia says he hopes for a center by September, but Ali--perhaps more realistically--sees the campaign for a center as a more long term objective.

"If it is possible for us to enlist the administration's support, it could probably happen relatively soon--relatively meaning within a decade," Ali says.

Garcia describes the idea multicultural center as a place where minority student groups can hold offices, present speakers and hold meetings. Other students suggest space for art displays or book collections as well.

None of the minority leaders interviewed expressed an interest in a multicultural center which would include residential housing or dining facilities for minority students.

Ali says minority student organizations need their own offices in order to function effectively and to serve the campus.

"The absence of a multicultural or Black students center really cripples our efforts to improve the students' life in terms of diversity," Ali says. "It's definitely a handicap to our community."

"At Harvard we really don't have a student center at all. The houses are supposed to serve that purpose, but in many ways they do not," he says.

Many proponents expect a center to improve life not only for minorities but also for the campus as a whole.

"It would help minority students a lot if non-minority students who are interested in minority issues were at vigils or events," says Laila F. Sahyoun '94, former president of Harvard's Society of Arab Students.

"I think it would be completely inclusive," LaO chair Julia M. Reyes '94 agrees. "It wouldn't be specific to the different groups."

"It would be a resource for the whole school," says Cortes.

College Administration Is Skeptical

As the groundswell of support for a minority students center increases, College administrators remain skeptical. The issue of a multicultural center has been in and out of the spotlight of campus politics for almost 30 years. In the past the Black Students Association has pushed for a "Third World" students center or an African-American cultural center, but the University has steadfastly refused to support the plans.

In 1982, a College-commissioned committee led by Plummer Professor of Christian Morals Rev. Peter J. Gomes, scuttled proposals for a Third World students center, claiming it would polarize the campus environment and undermine the College's House system as the intellectual and social centers on campus.

In recent years College administrators have cited the Gomes report as the main reason not to have a center. Minority student leaders interviewed for this article named Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III, the official coordinator of the College's race relations programs, as a strong opponent of a center. Epps declined to comment.

Because of long-standing opposition from the administration, minority student leaders worry that the campaign for a center will be a long, drawn out battle that will continue to be fought long after they graduate.

"Frankly, if the College administration holds the posture that it does hold, I think it will be totally dependent on the students and it would take longer to materialize, because as students we have academic concerns and we're only here for four years," Ali says.

But as the College continues its efforts to study how to improve race relations at Harvard, it appears that any proposal is fair game--even a minority students center.

Dean of the College L. Fred Jewett '57 expresses concern that a multicultural center would polarize the campus along racial and ethnic lines.

"A lot of people felt in fact that it was good to have programs and activities which brought people together instead of pulling them apart," Jewett says, noting that the houses have traditionally formed the basis of student activity.

Jewett says that the issue extends beyond the demands of the Coalition or of individual minority groups.

"We haven't supported a physical center apart from the houses for any group. It's not just minority groups," he says, citing both women's groups and gay and Jesbian groups.

Jewett says that the existence of Hillel does not reflect on the issue of a minority students center.

"Hillel's building is not funded by the University. It's a religious group that has an affiliation with the University, but the building is separate," he says. "I don't think it's analogous. The decision to have it is theirs. It's not particularly our business."

Hillel's extraordinary $8 million capital campaign is the result of decades of work, according to Acting Hillel Director Rabbi Sally Finestone. "The only reason why Hillel was able to raise the funds was basically because for over 30 years people have been becoming part of this community, worshipping here and studying here," says Finestone. "It took 30 years of nurturing a community of alumni support, and the fund raising has been going on for seven years."

Finestone also draws a distinction between the functions of Hillel and of a possible minority students center. "Hillel is basically the synagogue for the Harvard community, and that is different than what the other groups face," says Rabbi Sally Finestone, acting director of Harvard-Radcliffe Hillel.

"On the other hand," Finestone says, "I feel that it would be a tremendous aid to the ethnic and racial groups on campus if there was a physical space to gather and hold offices. That's sorely needed."

In an interview with The Crimson in November, Epps said the Gomes report does not apply to Hillel, saying he believes it is primarily a religious organization rather than an ethnic organization.

"Hillel is more similar to the Catholic students' center than a Third World center," said Epps. "Therefore, I do not have the same concerns about the activities of Hillel that I would otherwise."

But Ali disputes Epps' distinctions.

"The frequent administration response is that those groups are religious, but I would say that that's a very simplistic analysis of those groups," Ali says. "Many [administrators] laud the cultural richness that is promoted at Hillel, and that type of richness we promote as well."

While Hillel began as a purely religious organization, leaders have said the group has increasingly sponsored social and cultural projects in the Jewish community.

While Epps may oppose proposals for a center, other administrators appear to be, at the very least, lukewarm.

Dean of Housing Thomas A. Dingman '67 says that a minority students center for offices and meeting space could work effectively in conjunction with the house system. "I don't think it would detract from the houses as being central to undergraduate life," Dingman says.

Still, Jewett says he has not made a decision in advance of any formal proposals. "I'm ready and willing to discuss it if students want to," Jewett says, "but I would still have to be convinced the center is the best way to go."

Garcia rejects Jewett's concerns that a multicultural center would polarize the campus, "They're the only people who divide the campus at this point," he says of the administrators who oppose the center.

Separatism?

"We realize that by pushing for this we're going to be called separatists, but whatever they choose to call us is fine," Garcia says.

"The campus is already pulled apart by tensions," former LaO President Efrain Cortes '94 says. "It's not due to ethnic groups, it's due to the lack of commitment of the administration to make minority students feel more comfortable at this institution, and a minority center would help."

Ali does not consider the push for a center evidence of separatism. "Many people just want to look at it as a withdrawal, and I think to that extent it's a misunderstanding."

"People would think it was a separatist tendency, and then it would be counterproductive to promoting race relations, but I don't think that's the case," he says. "I don't think a strong group definition restricts interactions in race relations, but I think that's the opinion people often hold."

"I do think in general in society there is a fear anytime Black people or so-called minority people or people of color are gathering together," Ali says. "I think that strikes fear in people's minds, what our intentions would be."

"It would only serve to strengthen the various communities, and if that is a fear, that is something everyone should be concerned with," Ali says.

Sara K. LaRoche '95, co-chair of Native Americans at Harvard, says that a center would not detract from the constant interaction minority students have with other segments of the campus population.

"Our whole lives we're with other students. We participate in daily life along with everyone else. As minority students, we need support for each other," LaRoche says. "As a small group, we can get lost in the shuffle."

"It might bring people from different groups together, but it doesn't mean that it will split people in general up," says Harvard Islamic Society Chair Omar Mabreh '94.

"I don't know about physical space, but I think already people are meeting and getting together around common interests and backgrounds," he says. "I think that complements the houses which create more of a mix."

Regardless of concerns about polarization, Dingman says the administration must consider financial issues. "You'd also have to consider priorities," Dingman says. "The University is strapped right now, so to have additional expenses doing the things we set out to do, it does raise some concerns."

"You'd have to consider what other demands would be on space," he says of the potential of setting aside space for minority groups to hold meetings or offices in the houses.

"It's very easy for a group to get the JCR for a night, but to designate a space for sole use is something the houses would have to address," Dingman says.

For many minority student groups, however, finding space to meet is anything but easy.

"I think that for a lot of minority groups it's very difficult to get a space, whether a place to meet or a head office," Sahyoun says. "Every group needs to have a main base."

"If we had speakers or held study groups, [a center] would be so much more convenient," Cheng says.

And for the students who want a multicultural center, the benefits outweigh the costs.

Even as the Coalition for Diversity prepares to address what members see as a definite need for a multicultural center, however, dispute over the form of such a center remains. Most minority leaders seem to favor a general minority center, which they consider the most feasible proposal.

For some minority groups, individual centers for each group would be the optimal solution. "At this point, we are in support of either [a multicultural center or a Black students center]," Ali says, "but the ideal situation would be a center for any group that feels it needs a center, so that we could avoid competition for resources, which are so little."

"A multicultural center would be a great thing, but if you have a Latino center for Latino students it would be very specific to the needs of those students," Cortes says.

Still, Cortes says, "I don't think we should be arguing about a multicultural center [versus] a Latino center."

Cheng supports a common center over separate facilities. "Having a multicultural center would probably foster greater cooperation among the groups," she says. "It would force the groups to acknowledge each other."

For now, many minority groups are looking toward the Coalition for Diversity to lead the push for a multicultural center.

"We're spread kind of thin, and I think there's strength in numbers," LaRoche says.

LaRoche says that the Native Americans at Harvard organization does not plan any immediate actions of its own. "Right now we're just going to wait and see," she says.

The Black Students Association, however, has already begun coordinating a fund raising drive along with the African American Cultural Center for a Black students center. The AACC used to manage a center for Black students, but now only the organization remains.

"We are planning to organize an alumni fund raising drive with the AACC, because the first thing you run into is funding," Ali says.

"The more independent our organizations can become from the administration," he says, "the less concerned with the surface-tension-related problems distracting us from our more serious concerns, serving the Black student community and the Black community at large."

For the Asian American Association, Cheng says, other issues currently take precedent over a multicultural center. "Obviously it's not gotten off the ground. It's not something I think that students think is the most important thing," she says, citing other considerations like ethnic studies and faculty diversity.

But for Garcia and the Coalition for Diversity, the minority students center is now a clearly defined goal.

They hope that a center will give Harvard, which they have dubbed "The Peculiar Institution," a more hospitable atmosphere. But how their campaign for diversity plans to turn demands into reality remains unclear.

Over a decade ago, Harvard scuttled proposals for a minority "Third World Center," claiming it would polarize the campus. This spring, a minority students center is on the list of demands from the Coalition for Diversity. Now the coalition points to the success of the Harvard-Radcliffe Hillel, which has recently begun construction on an $8 million building. Coalition members say minority groups are...

The Hillel is a good model for the type of relationship we could have with the University and with the Cambridge community.

Zaheer R. Ali'94 organizer, Coalition for Diversity president, Black Students Assoc.CrimsonTim A. ChamplainCoalition for Diversity members meet with Dean of Students ARCHIE C. EPPS III. From left to right, they are: B. ESTELLA TORRES '94, HANEEN M. RABIE '95, and AMY E. KADOMATSU '94.

Ali says minority student organizations need their own offices in order to function effectively and to serve the campus.

"The absence of a multicultural or Black students center really cripples our efforts to improve the students' life in terms of diversity," Ali says. "It's definitely a handicap to our community."

"At Harvard we really don't have a student center at all. The houses are supposed to serve that purpose, but in many ways they do not," he says.

Many proponents expect a center to improve life not only for minorities but also for the campus as a whole.

"It would help minority students a lot if non-minority students who are interested in minority issues were at vigils or events," says Laila F. Sahyoun '94, former president of Harvard's Society of Arab Students.

"I think it would be completely inclusive," LaO chair Julia M. Reyes '94 agrees. "It wouldn't be specific to the different groups."

"It would be a resource for the whole school," says Cortes.

College Administration Is Skeptical

As the groundswell of support for a minority students center increases, College administrators remain skeptical. The issue of a multicultural center has been in and out of the spotlight of campus politics for almost 30 years. In the past the Black Students Association has pushed for a "Third World" students center or an African-American cultural center, but the University has steadfastly refused to support the plans.

In 1982, a College-commissioned committee led by Plummer Professor of Christian Morals Rev. Peter J. Gomes, scuttled proposals for a Third World students center, claiming it would polarize the campus environment and undermine the College's House system as the intellectual and social centers on campus.

In recent years College administrators have cited the Gomes report as the main reason not to have a center. Minority student leaders interviewed for this article named Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III, the official coordinator of the College's race relations programs, as a strong opponent of a center. Epps declined to comment.

Because of long-standing opposition from the administration, minority student leaders worry that the campaign for a center will be a long, drawn out battle that will continue to be fought long after they graduate.

"Frankly, if the College administration holds the posture that it does hold, I think it will be totally dependent on the students and it would take longer to materialize, because as students we have academic concerns and we're only here for four years," Ali says.

But as the College continues its efforts to study how to improve race relations at Harvard, it appears that any proposal is fair game--even a minority students center.

Dean of the College L. Fred Jewett '57 expresses concern that a multicultural center would polarize the campus along racial and ethnic lines.

"A lot of people felt in fact that it was good to have programs and activities which brought people together instead of pulling them apart," Jewett says, noting that the houses have traditionally formed the basis of student activity.

Jewett says that the issue extends beyond the demands of the Coalition or of individual minority groups.

"We haven't supported a physical center apart from the houses for any group. It's not just minority groups," he says, citing both women's groups and gay and Jesbian groups.

Jewett says that the existence of Hillel does not reflect on the issue of a minority students center.

"Hillel's building is not funded by the University. It's a religious group that has an affiliation with the University, but the building is separate," he says. "I don't think it's analogous. The decision to have it is theirs. It's not particularly our business."

Hillel's extraordinary $8 million capital campaign is the result of decades of work, according to Acting Hillel Director Rabbi Sally Finestone. "The only reason why Hillel was able to raise the funds was basically because for over 30 years people have been becoming part of this community, worshipping here and studying here," says Finestone. "It took 30 years of nurturing a community of alumni support, and the fund raising has been going on for seven years."

Finestone also draws a distinction between the functions of Hillel and of a possible minority students center. "Hillel is basically the synagogue for the Harvard community, and that is different than what the other groups face," says Rabbi Sally Finestone, acting director of Harvard-Radcliffe Hillel.

"On the other hand," Finestone says, "I feel that it would be a tremendous aid to the ethnic and racial groups on campus if there was a physical space to gather and hold offices. That's sorely needed."

In an interview with The Crimson in November, Epps said the Gomes report does not apply to Hillel, saying he believes it is primarily a religious organization rather than an ethnic organization.

"Hillel is more similar to the Catholic students' center than a Third World center," said Epps. "Therefore, I do not have the same concerns about the activities of Hillel that I would otherwise."

But Ali disputes Epps' distinctions.

"The frequent administration response is that those groups are religious, but I would say that that's a very simplistic analysis of those groups," Ali says. "Many [administrators] laud the cultural richness that is promoted at Hillel, and that type of richness we promote as well."

While Hillel began as a purely religious organization, leaders have said the group has increasingly sponsored social and cultural projects in the Jewish community.

While Epps may oppose proposals for a center, other administrators appear to be, at the very least, lukewarm.

Dean of Housing Thomas A. Dingman '67 says that a minority students center for offices and meeting space could work effectively in conjunction with the house system. "I don't think it would detract from the houses as being central to undergraduate life," Dingman says.

Still, Jewett says he has not made a decision in advance of any formal proposals. "I'm ready and willing to discuss it if students want to," Jewett says, "but I would still have to be convinced the center is the best way to go."

Garcia rejects Jewett's concerns that a multicultural center would polarize the campus, "They're the only people who divide the campus at this point," he says of the administrators who oppose the center.

Separatism?

"We realize that by pushing for this we're going to be called separatists, but whatever they choose to call us is fine," Garcia says.

"The campus is already pulled apart by tensions," former LaO President Efrain Cortes '94 says. "It's not due to ethnic groups, it's due to the lack of commitment of the administration to make minority students feel more comfortable at this institution, and a minority center would help."

Ali does not consider the push for a center evidence of separatism. "Many people just want to look at it as a withdrawal, and I think to that extent it's a misunderstanding."

"People would think it was a separatist tendency, and then it would be counterproductive to promoting race relations, but I don't think that's the case," he says. "I don't think a strong group definition restricts interactions in race relations, but I think that's the opinion people often hold."

"I do think in general in society there is a fear anytime Black people or so-called minority people or people of color are gathering together," Ali says. "I think that strikes fear in people's minds, what our intentions would be."

"It would only serve to strengthen the various communities, and if that is a fear, that is something everyone should be concerned with," Ali says.

Sara K. LaRoche '95, co-chair of Native Americans at Harvard, says that a center would not detract from the constant interaction minority students have with other segments of the campus population.

"Our whole lives we're with other students. We participate in daily life along with everyone else. As minority students, we need support for each other," LaRoche says. "As a small group, we can get lost in the shuffle."

"It might bring people from different groups together, but it doesn't mean that it will split people in general up," says Harvard Islamic Society Chair Omar Mabreh '94.

"I don't know about physical space, but I think already people are meeting and getting together around common interests and backgrounds," he says. "I think that complements the houses which create more of a mix."

Regardless of concerns about polarization, Dingman says the administration must consider financial issues. "You'd also have to consider priorities," Dingman says. "The University is strapped right now, so to have additional expenses doing the things we set out to do, it does raise some concerns."

"You'd have to consider what other demands would be on space," he says of the potential of setting aside space for minority groups to hold meetings or offices in the houses.

"It's very easy for a group to get the JCR for a night, but to designate a space for sole use is something the houses would have to address," Dingman says.

For many minority student groups, however, finding space to meet is anything but easy.

"I think that for a lot of minority groups it's very difficult to get a space, whether a place to meet or a head office," Sahyoun says. "Every group needs to have a main base."

"If we had speakers or held study groups, [a center] would be so much more convenient," Cheng says.

And for the students who want a multicultural center, the benefits outweigh the costs.

Even as the Coalition for Diversity prepares to address what members see as a definite need for a multicultural center, however, dispute over the form of such a center remains. Most minority leaders seem to favor a general minority center, which they consider the most feasible proposal.

For some minority groups, individual centers for each group would be the optimal solution. "At this point, we are in support of either [a multicultural center or a Black students center]," Ali says, "but the ideal situation would be a center for any group that feels it needs a center, so that we could avoid competition for resources, which are so little."

"A multicultural center would be a great thing, but if you have a Latino center for Latino students it would be very specific to the needs of those students," Cortes says.

Still, Cortes says, "I don't think we should be arguing about a multicultural center [versus] a Latino center."

Cheng supports a common center over separate facilities. "Having a multicultural center would probably foster greater cooperation among the groups," she says. "It would force the groups to acknowledge each other."

For now, many minority groups are looking toward the Coalition for Diversity to lead the push for a multicultural center.

"We're spread kind of thin, and I think there's strength in numbers," LaRoche says.

LaRoche says that the Native Americans at Harvard organization does not plan any immediate actions of its own. "Right now we're just going to wait and see," she says.

The Black Students Association, however, has already begun coordinating a fund raising drive along with the African American Cultural Center for a Black students center. The AACC used to manage a center for Black students, but now only the organization remains.

"We are planning to organize an alumni fund raising drive with the AACC, because the first thing you run into is funding," Ali says.

"The more independent our organizations can become from the administration," he says, "the less concerned with the surface-tension-related problems distracting us from our more serious concerns, serving the Black student community and the Black community at large."

For the Asian American Association, Cheng says, other issues currently take precedent over a multicultural center. "Obviously it's not gotten off the ground. It's not something I think that students think is the most important thing," she says, citing other considerations like ethnic studies and faculty diversity.

But for Garcia and the Coalition for Diversity, the minority students center is now a clearly defined goal.

They hope that a center will give Harvard, which they have dubbed "The Peculiar Institution," a more hospitable atmosphere. But how their campaign for diversity plans to turn demands into reality remains unclear.

Over a decade ago, Harvard scuttled proposals for a minority "Third World Center," claiming it would polarize the campus. This spring, a minority students center is on the list of demands from the Coalition for Diversity. Now the coalition points to the success of the Harvard-Radcliffe Hillel, which has recently begun construction on an $8 million building. Coalition members say minority groups are...

The Hillel is a good model for the type of relationship we could have with the University and with the Cambridge community.

Zaheer R. Ali'94 organizer, Coalition for Diversity president, Black Students Assoc.CrimsonTim A. ChamplainCoalition for Diversity members meet with Dean of Students ARCHIE C. EPPS III. From left to right, they are: B. ESTELLA TORRES '94, HANEEN M. RABIE '95, and AMY E. KADOMATSU '94.

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