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I take up an issue that has stared us in the face for many years. How do we use the diversity in our midst? This diversity is not an end, merely a means to an end. The ultimate and desirable end occurs only when Harvard men and women achieve a "special perspective" from their curricular and extracurricular college experiences.
The most classic statement of that hope was captured in former President Nathan M. Pusey's challenge to Harvard to produce men and women who would add distinction to the life of the world. He wanted students who were trained in critical thinking skills, positive in outlook, and capable of creating and sustaining a more civilized society--starting, of course, with themselves. Their true quality would come from cultivating sensibility, taste and judgment.
Pusey's views originated in Harvard's modern period. President A. Lawrence Lowell, who began that period as Harvard President in 1909, insisted on cultivating a Jeffersonian aristocracy of merit. Lowell's Harvard pursued high academic standards and had cosmopolitan aims; but had little racial diversity. It was Lowell who gave us the collegiate institutions to help us forge a common experience, break down class and regional divisions and work harmoniously within a faculty-driven culture.
Friendships flourish when students live in a community...with other undergraduates of different classes, types, and early associations.
A. Lawrence Lowell '77
According to Samuel Eliot Morrison, "Mr. Lowell disliked the social divisions he found in the college, because they were based on wealth, school, and Boston society, rather than on intellectual ability. The 'collegiate way of living' that our founders in their poverty established had vanished in the sprawling college of 2,200 students, increasing every year. The traditional union of religion, learning, and social life no longer existed."
Lowell studied the social system of British universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, and came to believe that their residential college system was a model for counteracting the social disintegration he saw happening among Harvard undergraduates. From the beginning of his presidency, he took steps that ultimately led to the establishment of the house system in 1930.
Because the houses were opened at Harvard so long ago, the original concept that sustained them had had time to develop in many ways, but the basic reason for their existence remains the same. This is how President Lowell saw the role of the Houses:
Men and women of knowledge and faith..., ready to learn from others, will make an effort at honest appraisal of their culture.
Nathan M. Pusey '28
"New contacts, good talk, wide range of friendships flourish when students live in a community and take their meals in the same dining room, not only with other undergraduates of different classes, types and early associations, but also with the tutors whom they may meet in off hours at breakfast, lunch or dinner..."
Through the first-year program and the house system, Lowell tried to "level up" the entering classes and democratize the college by providing common living experiences that overrode social class and ethnic origin.
Under President James B. Conant, Lowell's successor, efforts were made to extend the principle of selection by merit. The College sought talent nationwide through its admissions program, admitting on merit, regardless of financial need. My mentor, John Usher Munro, Dean of Harvard College (who resigned in the late 1960s to teach in a Black college in Alabama), told me about the early days of national recruiting. He and others would take the trains in Chicago and elsewhere, visiting schools and homes to identify talented students and to persuade parents, most of whom had never attended college, to let their children come to Harvard. The Conant national scholarships made it possible for socially diverse students to enroll in the College. Munro and his colleagues drew no color distinctions. They pursued talent wherever they found it. But their first real exposure to integration came from their World War II military experience.
During the war, Munro was on the bridge of his ship with his captain when orders came from the Pentagon that the armed forces would be integrated. Without warning, the captain turned to him and bellowed, "Munro, integrate the ship! That's an order!" On that day, John Munro began his lifelong dedication to racial integration. His efforts led to a successful campaign to enroll students from every race and continent and to improve the college experience of Black undergraduates by breaking down racial barriers within the College.
The divergent and sometimes conflicting student voices on campus are often signs of vital, even necessary, controversy.
Neil L. Rudenstine
After Conant's tenure, Pusey extended the Lowell principles through attention to the individual and the importance of academic freedom as the essential component of a first-rate university. Pusey hoped the College would produce students who:
"...ready to learn from others, will make an effort at honest appraisal of their culture; will recognize both its strength and weakness, will try to see these aspects separately and fairly, and who them, not complaining, or criticizing unreasonably, or turning away in supercilious indifference, will steadfastly set about working where they can--first of all perhaps with themselves--to improve that culture and to make not its shabbiness but its goodness available to others."
President Derek Bok, who succeeded Pusey, was the first president to address the complex issue of modern race relations as they existed at Harvard. He dealt forthrightly with the nettle-some issues of diversity we face today. He led Harvard when race relations was the dominant issue on campus, largely because the number of students of color had grown significantly. Moreover, he, like Lowell before him, had to decide how to orchestrate a response to a potentially divisive social issue. In addition, he presided over efforts to make the curriculum more inclusive, through the strengthening of an Afro-American Studies Department. He set forth his views on these matters in an Open Letter on Issues of Race at Harvard and Radcliffe, where he discussed three goals of race relations work in colleges and universities: equal opportunities for students regardless of race, a welcoming atmosphere, and full interchange among all students.
Bok acknowledged that the University had gone a long way toward achieving the first goal: "providing equal opportunities regardless of race." On the other hand, he admitted Harvard and Radcliffe had some distance to travel to achieve an atmosphere in which all felt "welcomed, accepted, and sufficiently confident of their status." He went on to describe concrete actions that could be taken to achieve the second and third goals.
Indeed, the institutions created by Bok and his deans--the Harvard Foundation for Race Relations and the Office of Race Relations--were designed to provide the capacity for intervention in the college environment to achieve Bok's goals, and the deans soon undertook concrete action to accomplish the task. Faculty, administrators and students soon saw those efforts as fundamental to a well-functioning academic community.
The Harvard Foundation reduced the sense among students of color that they were "guests in a strange house." It did so by sponsoring guest lectures and performances by those active in civil rights and ethnic groups, including people from film, the performing arts and popular culture. And the Office of Race Relations responded readily to complaints about racial harassment and insensitivity, raising the level of student awareness of such matters. The office pioneered in the development of peer and house-based programs that will provide guidance for the future.
In his last years, assisted by Dean of the Faculty Henry Rosovsky, Bok achieved a break-through in Afro-American Studies with the appointment of Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who came to Harvard from Duke to chair Afro-American Studies and to direct the W.E.B. DuBois Institute. Professor Gates' vision of these studies has brought a new dynamism to the College and faculty, engaging students of all races in the courses, lecture programs and conferences of both institutions.
Bok could articulate his race relations goals because of the high level of profitable interaction he saw among students of different races, and their common commitment to racial accord. The study of race relations, which the College published in 1981, found substantial interchange occurring among undergraduates of all races.
Citing the study, Bok observed in his open letter that "less than 10 percent of minorities report that they do not mix with the whites at meals or in social activities and student organizations, and a majority claim that they often interact in these settings." Nevertheless, and undermining his optimistic perceptions, he concluded that there "is a widespread belief among all students that interchange between members of different racial groups is often characterized by some degree of defensiveness, stereotyping, and occasionally even discriminatory attitudes."
Today's College is well-suited to assist in the integration of the races and the promotion of racial harmony because it has a diverse student body living in close quarters. Its capacity for racial integration rests largely on the achievement of Lowell's vision of what the social life of the Houses could bring about. "One object of the University is to counteract rather than copy the defects of the day," he said. "It is in the College that the character ought to be shaped, aspirations formed, citizens trained, and scholarship implanted." He added: "In relations of undergraduates to one another, might there not be more points of intellectual contact and might not considerable numbers of students have much in common?"
Thanks to the dedication of many people, the issue of access to Harvard has been largely resolved. We will now be tested and judged on the actual nature of the College experience. What is the quality of interaction among students of different ethnic backgrounds? And how do the educational and extracurricular dimensions give substance to those relationships?
It is discouraging that students of color sometimes have to experience a great college through the prejudice and arrogance of a still racially divided America. All of us who contribute in so many ways to the life of the College must accept full responsibility for creating an intellectual and moral environment that is free of ethnic and class hostility. All too frequently, however, the weight of that responsibility falls upon individual students.
Because one of Harvard and Radcliffe's goals is to foster and sustain healthy and congenial associations among students of diverse backgrounds (race is only one difference), it is important to hole the colleges to high standards in such matters, when thinking about successful race relations.
I take it as given that the College builds, or undermines, its place in the larger community by the way it sustains the moral and intellectual life of each member of the College community. Although it is important to promote a greater awareness and understanding by all students of the range of cultures and ethnic traditions represented by its members, the College's primary task is to encourage participation by all students in the full life of the College. It is responsible for creating a community based on mutual respect and generosity. And being generous towards other members of the college community means being a liberal in the traditional and best sense of that much-abused word: open to the free exchange of ideas in the spirit of civility and common decency.
I take encouragement from the fact that our president, Neil L. Rudenstine, devoted his first commencement address to the inter-play between free speech and diversity. He took up where Bok left off by seeking to provide guidance and leadership on the important questions of tolerance and diversity.
In a carefully reasoned address, Rudenstine said he was "not at all unhappy about the complex mix of ethnicity on campus and the debates, sometimes acrimonious, sparked by the interaction of different racial groups." He observed that "the divergent and sometimes conflicting student voices on campus are often signs of vital, even necessary, controversy; of healthy self-asserting; of different but essentially human growth; of jarring but important moments of sudden discussion and self-discovery."
Rudenstine's emphasis on a broadened diversity marked a point of departure from the rhetoric of Bok, who often discussed race relations in terms of black and white interaction. With the growth in the variety and number of people of color at Harvard (some 30 percent), we must always be ready to reexamine the assumptions and institutions that have informed race relations to the present day.
"People do succeed in reaching across gaps; deep friendships are formed; moments of exhilaration--as well as discouragement--are shared," Rudenstine said. "Day in and day out, University works as a lively, interesting, and convivial place where students and scholars live together and learn from one another."
Editor's note: This piece is adapted from an essay that will appear in the handbook on race relations, which will be distributed to houses and departments this Friday.
Archie C. Epps III is Dean of Students.
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