To a large extent, much of the debate surrounding the multicultural student center since the late 1960s has been repetitive in its language and unoriginal in its content. Despite the fact that both sides favor intercultural exchange and understanding, the arguments about whether or not such a center can achieve that goal have become entrenched in the same rhetoric, much to the frustration of both sides. Let's examine some of the main points of contention of the debate and really look at the reasoning behind their mere language.
But to judge the viability of such a center, we need a clear conception of just what it is; unfortunately most people, students and administrators alike, take the name multicultural student center at face value and let their imagination fill in the rest. A multicultural student center should be a resource center for different groups on campus ranging from the Carribean club to the Polish society modeled after the Lyman common room. Its primary function is educational and political. Educational because of its resources of books, videos, and equipment; a group by itself may not be able to afford such necessities as a copier or fax. Political because it provides a space for meetings and affirms the fact that Harvard University as a whole intends to actually use its diversity rather than just flaunt it. Out of the interaction this center would foster, true cultural understanding would take place. It is not a social club. It is not a final club. It is open to all. With that in mind, here are the main arguments:
The Multicultural Student Center will a) foster multicultural exchange or b) foster segregation.
In November 1995, university officials rejected a proposal for a multicultural student center from the minority student alliance (MSA) co-sponsored with 15 other student cultural organizations. "We are committed both to diversity and to racial integration. I think it would be a great shame if we started dividing [Harvard] up, saying this race goes here. It would diminish the University," said Archie C. Epps III, in an article in The Crimson, Nov.2, 1995. Opponents argue that the center, regardless of its pluralistic name, would become a sort of safe haven for minorities and foster segregation. This argument is much weakened when we look at the status quo right now student groups are divided up with offices scattered in Thayer Basement and Holworthy Basement. Most groups do not even have an office. At any rate, there exist on campus a series of what might be dubbed monocultural student centers.
Surely that outcome cannot be the intent of the university. The fears of actual physical segregation of ethnic groups have already been realized by the status quo. Moreover, the fact that the university officially recognizes both the existence and importance of different ethnic groups begs the question of why it will tolerate and even foster intragroup relations by supporting ethnic groups but not intergroup relations by denying them a center to interact. To argue that such a center will isolate different ethnic groups indicates a lack of understanding of what functions such a center would serve.
Because it will be resource oriented, to assume that ethnic isolation would occur is akin to saying that the Lyman Common Room at Radcliffe College isolates men from women, or that Phillips Brooks House isolates liberals or that the Institute of Politics isolates government concentrators.
Just as PBHA or the IOP are open to all interested students, so too the multicultural student center will be open to all students on campus who have an interest in multicultural issues.
The Harvard Foundation is already fulfilling the role of a multi-cultural student center. Advancing this argument against a multicultural student center unfortunately misses the point. Few people would doubt that the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations has done excellent work in providing groups with a financial basis for events in addition to sponsoring speakers and hosting Cultural Rhythms. However, as a resource center, the Foundation is limited by its space and purpose. A small office in Thayer Basement next to the laundry machines can do relatively little in fostering personal understanding of the student body. Establishing a multicultural student center would not obviate the Harvard Foundation.
While the Foundation's support would be financial, the support of the multicultural student center would be logistical. The two entities would be complementary. The groups in the various basements do not interact now; why should it be different in the multicultural student center?
Opponents of the multicultural student center often wonder why different student groups that share the same space (i.e. Thayer or Holworthy Basement) do not interact now. This assertion is untrue to the extent that Asian American Association (AAA) does co-sponsor events with LaRaza or that Black Student Alliance (BSA) works with MSA. In other words, interaction between groups does happen; it just does not happen in their respective offices. The reason is simple: Thayer Basement by no means even approaches the model of a multicultural student center, for it lacks a common physical space for meetings as well as resources and equipment. Right now it is little more than a storage space for the different organizations. Because of this, groups are forced to take planning and meetings outside of Thayer Basement to plan events together, a task that would be much facilitated by the establishment of a multicultural student center.
Harvard University is, in itself, a multicultural student center. unfortunately this argument is too simplistic in this rather complex debate. Sure, semantically, Harvard University is a multicultural student center to the extent that there are students and they are of different backgrounds. But the same argument could be made of any place with students of varying heritage, including the Citadel or the Peruvian embassy, where intercultural understanding are not likely to take place.
The distinguishing variable is the context in which people come into contact with one another. Section meetings and standing in line at a dining hall contribute relatively little to this goal, but a common space with a sense of a common mission with a diverse and interested student body would. Alexander T. Nguyen '99 is a Crimson editor residing in Currier House.
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