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Concerning the Curricular Review

By Colleston A. Morgan and Brandon M. Terry

We, the Harvard Black Men’s Forum (BMF), recognize the monumental importance of the ongoing process of reviewing the College curriculum: the review will profoundly affect both the experience of future Harvard students and the institution of higher education in general. There is much to be praised about the recent recommendations of the Harvard College Curricular Review (HCCR)—but there is much more that should be done to ensure that the review does not neglect issues of importance to minority communities, both on campus and within the larger society.

The move to emphasize public service within the curriculum, including a provision for active service components in some classes, is a bold and positive step, as is the proposed opportunity to earn honors recognition within academic concentrations without traditional Theses. We also support a reorganization of the academic calendar and the introduction of a January term that allows for alternative experiences, as long as these changes are instituted in a way that does not compromise the importance of reading period for the synthesis and comprehension of material. The BMF also strongly endorses the HCCR report’s emphasis on an international experience for all students—as long as the College concurrently moves to expand and encourage travel and study opportunities in underappreciated regions such as Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.

However, the BMF does have concerns about several of the proposals advanced by the report. Most immediately, we are convinced that a move to a Yale-style housing system—in which first-years would be placed in Houses based on their first-year entryways—would prove damaging to the experience of Harvard students, and particularly minority students, for a number of reasons. Many Harvard students select their blocking groups and roommates based on relationships they have formed through some sort of extracurricular activity. The shared interests of these rooming groups nurture individuals and provide for their personal development, easing the mental stress of college life. To force students to live with whomever was randomly assigned to their first-year residence is to make the paternalistic assumption that the College can best determine one’s friends, robbing students of the opportunity to engage in the valuable personal reflection that is involved in the selection of blockmates under the current system.

Furthermore, if Harvard’s administrators are serious about making strides to support minority students, they will realize that this proposal will wreak serious havoc on the sense of community that many minority groups on campus have from living and working together. The College has already weakened campus minority communities through House randomization in 1996 and the subsequent reduction in the size of blocking groups. These problems were exacerbated because Harvard is severely lacking in institutional support for the space necessary for the unity of minority groups on campus. Unless Harvard is willing to make a commitment to something akin to Yale’s African American Cultural Center, then a move to a Yale-style housing system will be perceived as an assault on the unity of campus communities and groups organized around similar interests and ethnic identities.

In addition, the idea of assigning incoming first-years to a House before they arrive assumes that the House advising system is one that is best for all students. It has been the experience of many minority students that they are more comfortable seeking advising outside of the House, through extracurricular groups and other trustworthy people that they find through social networks or academic settings. Perhaps all student interests would best be served by a more centralized advising program operated by an independent body within the College that assigns advisers based on interests, instead of House affiliation.

The BMF also believes it important that the College further diversify its curriculum to include more classes that deal with the art, literature, philosophy, social science and history of people of color worldwide. The newly-proposed “Harvard College Courses,” with their interdiscliplinary approaches to traditional questions, provide a perfect platform for the College to increase the visibility and importance of non-Western approaches to knowledge. A global citizen of the 21st century should be able to draw on a plethora of cultural and intellectual traditions when making decisions.

Especially in the wake of previously-reported conflicts between the administration and the African and African American studies department as well as the Committee on Ethnic Studies, an emphasis on diversity would send a strong signal reaffirming the College’s continued commitment to providing a well-rounded educational experience. Diversifying course offerings also necessarily leads to a more academically and ethnically diverse faculty—who then, in turn, can provide for a much more efficient advising process because they will be able to engage more students and student organizations culturally and intellectually. Any refusal to address faculty and curricular diversity in this curricular review would seriously undermine the rest of Harvard’s approach to creating a new global citizenry. Perhaps even more sadly, it would signal a return to the days when Harvard’s minority population existed on the intellectual and social margins of University life.

Brandon M. Terry ’05, a government and African and African American studies concentrator in Lowell House, is the president of the Black Men’s Forum. Colleston A. Morgan Jr. ’07, who lives in Canaday Hall, is the political action chair of the Black Men’s Forum.

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