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At a faculty meeting Tuesday, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana announced Harvard’s House masters had unanimously agreed to change their title. The decision, said Khurana in an email to students later that evening, “makes sense on very many levels,” though he declined to specify their myriad multitudes. To us, the decision makes little sense at all.
Harvard is not the first school to reexamine the “master” title. This fall, the leader of Yale’s Pierson College dropped the moniker, and soon after Princeton’s residential college masters became “heads."
Students in favor of these changes claim the word “master” is too closely associated with slavery for comfort. What then will come for master’s degrees, or Harvard’s board of overseers, is unclear.
These misguided calls, which Khurana and the House masters have unfortunately chosen not only to take seriously but also to accede to, come amid protests over a lack of administrative racial sensitivity on campuses across the country. But unlike the movement to change Harvard Law School’s seal, currently the family crest of its slaveholding founding donor, the title of House master has never been associated with slavery.
Words are words. They have many meanings that change over time. Any supposed, tenuous connection between the academic title of master and slavery is grounded neither in history nor in reality, and is unlikely to have any real effect on race relations at Harvard. Rather than legitimizing these games of word association, Harvard and its administrators ought to spend time addressing actual issues of inclusivity on campus.
Switching the title to something that is sure to be more awkward and less apt—for a time, Mather House’s website requested that their masters be called “chief executive officers”—gives only the appearance of action without fully committing to it. They are superficial changes, which even Khurana appears unable to ground in substance. We look forward to a fuller explanation.
When we listen to complaints based on bad linguistics, when even etymologies become tools of oppression, we go too far. It sends us down the path of revising the names of all things plausibly found offensive—and eventually those not plausible as well. Our country’s past is fraught with racism, and the present is full of painful reminders. Some ongoing discussions about where flags, statutes, and symbols come from are worth having. But this is not one of them.
In his email, Khurana asks that we “renew the serious work” we all do. We hope he takes his own advice.
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