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University President Drew G. Faust argued at a conference last week that universities have a responsibility to begin a public dialogue about the legacy of slavery on their campuses and in the United States.
In a discussion moderated by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a writer for the Atlantic who argues descendants of slaves should be paid reparations, Faust joined John J. DeGioia, the president of Georgetown University, in a discussion at the Washington Ideas Week about histories of slavery and racism on college campuses.
“We are exploring that and trying to understand what was the place of slavery in building the institution that we have today; what were the contributions made by slaves, enslaved people, to Harvard’s past, and trying to dig that out,” Faust said during the event.
In the last few years, both Harvard and Georgetown have started to publicly engage with their respective histories of slavery. At Harvard, Faust dedicated a plaque to four enslaved people who lived and worked on Harvard’s campus in the 18th century, and the Law School retired its seal because of its connections to slavery. This summer, Georgetown announced it would offer preferential status in its admissions processes to descendants of the 272 slaves owned by the university.
In an interview with The Crimson last Tuesday, Faust said a similar program would likely be untenable at Harvard, since the University did not directly own any slaves and kept incomplete records of those who did work there.
“I am not aware of any slaves that were owned by Harvard itself, and slavery was much less of a presence and an economic force in New England than it was in Washington, D.C., and the South,” Faust said. “Mostly slave records were kept as economic records, business records, and the records we have of slaves at Harvard are much scarcer and less complete.”
At the Washington event, Faust also discussed what she sees as the importance of values-based education at colleges and universities, a major theme from her commencement speech this year.
“We don’t just want to train them like automatons; we want to educate them in the larger context in which whatever field they’re pursuing will be practiced,” Faust said. “I think we have a huge responsibility to attend to these many, many issues in the field of race relations, in the aftermath of slavery, but in a number of other dimensions of injustice and social crisis as well.”
Harvard plans to further its conversation about the history of slavery at colleges and universities in the United States at a conference, which Coates will headline, in the spring. Faust has also appointed a committee of historians to further study slavery on Harvard’s campus and propose other potential memorials.
The sobering discussion was not without moments of levity.
“[Faust] is one of our finest living historians also, to my mind,” Coates said to applause. “It’s been a little hard to not fanboy out up here, but I’m not going to do it, guys, I promise. I’ll save it for backstage.”
“Well, that makes my year. My life,” Faust responded.
—Staff writer Andrew M. Duehren can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @aduehren.
—Staff writer Daphne C. Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @daphnectho.
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