For Theater, Dance, and Media concentrator and president of the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club Aislinn E. Brophy ’17, theater at Harvard is a driving passion and a primary academic and extracurricular pursuit. But theater at Harvard is also a world in which Brophy, a black student, says that she has had to claim space for herself and the expression of her identity. “I don’t frequently see a lot of people who look like me on stage,” she said. “For me, it’s really exciting when I see someone who looks like me doing what I want to do. So that’s what I want to be for somebody else.”
Brophy’s experience offers just one example of a much broader campus conversation about the arts and inclusivity. As Harvard’s undergraduate student body has grown ever more diverse, many challenges remain in making the University a fully open institution for all those admitted. From the ongoing dialogue over social spaces to the movement to protect undocumented students, from criticisms of affirmative-action admissions practices to protests after the election of Donald Trump, issues of identity and belonging have been at the forefront of discussions on campus in the past weeks and months. The intersection of these questions with the arts has also emerged as a key focus for debate, most recently during the controversy over the Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert & Sullivan Players’ fall production of “The Mikado.”
According to The Crimson’s annual survey of graduating seniors, students of color at Harvard are less likely to concentrate in the arts and humanities than their white peers. Students, faculty, and administrators cite a variety of possible reasons for this disparity: socioeconomic pressures to pursue more obviously marketable majors, lack of access to arts programs in high school, and lack of diversity in curricula and faculty in the arts and humanities departments of the university. Many administrators and faculty now express a commitment to broadening both their course offerings and the demographics of their teaching staff to reflect the interests and identities of an increasingly diverse undergraduate population.
Outside the classroom, meanwhile, students are exploring issues of identity and inclusion, culture and history, through a wide variety of creative extracurriculars. Across the University, both faculty and students say that making the arts more open and more responsive to broader social concerns has rarely been so important. Following the election of a presidential candidate who in his campaign demeaned specific minority groups, many of those interviewed suggest that the arts can serve as a means to put forth a different vision of American citizenship and to reassert the values of tolerance and diversity.
The Crimson’s 2016 survey of graduating seniors showed that about 10 percent of surveyed students of color—Hispanic or Latino, American Indian or Alaska native, Asian, South Asian, Black or African American, and Pacific Islander students—had concentrated in an arts or humanities discipline, compared with 14 percent of white students surveyed. In total, 906 students responded to the survey—representing more than half of the class—although not all respondents answered every question. The survey, sent to seniors by email and open from May 5 to May 11, was anonymous, and The Crimson did not adjust the data for possible selection bias. Fifty-seven percent of students of color concentrated in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields, compared with 45 percent of white students. From top administrators to students, many within the University see this gap as a problem.
For Robin Kelsey, Dean of the Arts and Humanities Division of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the issue of inclusion has become increasingly important as Harvard’s student population has changed. “Making the arts and humanities responsive to the unprecedented diversity of Harvard’s undergraduate student body is one of my highest priorities as dean,” he said.
Kelsey said that he would hesitate to assign a definitive cause to the lack of diversity within the arts and humanities at Harvard as compared to STEM concentrations. “As we know, correlation and causation have a very tricky relationship,” he said. However, he speculated that socioeconomic factors might play a role. “To begin with, students of color by and large come from less-privileged backgrounds than white students. The more comfortable you feel economically, the more free you may feel to pursue a study that you love. This places the arts and humanities at a disadvantage with students from economically less-privileged backgrounds, regardless of the color of their skin or their ethnic identification,” he said. Kelsey said that students who felt themselves or their families to be less economically secure may feel pressure to choose a concentration with clear professional applications.
Suzannah Clark, chair of the Music Department, agreed. “No matter what one’s race or identity, [if one is] either a first-generation college student or economically disadvantaged or on financial aid, there can be pressures to think about how one can use one’s degree later for employment,” she said. “Sometimes people worry that the arts and humanities don’t necessarily lead to the most obvious jobs afterwards.”
Sarah E. Lewis ’01, assistant professor in History of Art and Architecture and African and African American Studies, added that the pathway to careers in the arts can involve years of unpaid internships, which many students cannot afford. “I was a social studies-art history double concentrator here, and I did notice that I was one of the few students of color who saw a career in the arts as my future,” she said. “But given the changes that are occurring in the art world to start to do away with the unpaid internship model, and I think the increasing visibility of many—my colleagues and artists of color—who are pioneering work, indispensible work, today, we’ll start to see some change.”
Students themselves cite the barriers to access to the arts that result from economic disadvantages. Nicolas E. O’Connor ’17, a Latino student of Ecuadorian descent who concentrates in English and is involved in campus theater, said that he felt lucky to have had a strong theater program in his high school. He added that many students of color come from schools that lack well-funded arts programs, which may impact their interest in or sense of preparedness to pursue the arts once they arrive at college.
Lewis also noted that students’ experience of inclusion in or exclusion from the arts begins long before college. “Not teaching art in most public schools makes it harder to have a diverse pipeline [of students] entering the programs at the undergraduate and graduate level,” she said.
Many faculty and students also expressed concerns about a lack of diversity in the curricula in arts and humanities concentrations at Harvard. Brophy said although the standing committee on Theater, Dance, and Media is working to increase the number of courses focused on non-Western art, these courses remain relatively scarce and are often general surveys. She explained that incorporating both breadth and depth into studying art outside the Western canon remains a challenge. “I find [it] frustrating that when non-Western traditions are brought into the curriculum, it’s frequently in a class that purports to do a broad survey of all of a section of non-Western culture,” she said. “So if you’re taking a class on, say, African theater, you’re like, ‘I’m learning about all of African theater this semester?’ And you’re not. But on the other hand, if you don’t have foundational courses, it seems odd to have very specific courses that address things.”
Martin Puchner, chair of Theater, Dance, and Media, said that the committee is mindful of the need for diversity of representation in the concentration’s courses and productions. “[W]e are extremely committed to a diverse group of concentrators and faculty, and we seek to foster that commitment in the design of the curriculum and our various concentration activities,” Puchner wrote in an email. He added that TDM includes a world theater requirement and that November’s concentration production of August Strindberg’s ‘A Dream Play’ included a diverse cast and addressed issues of inclusion through a new interpretation of the work.
O’Connor also discussed the lack of ethnic and racial diversity in the English curriculum. He noted a narrowness of focus on relatively few well-established authors of color in the English courses that do incorporate literature by non-white writers. “As much as I love Junot Díaz, half of the courses that involve people of color will read his work,” he said.
James Simpson, chair of the English Department, said that the department is currently working on a motion “with regard to diversity.” In an emailed statement, Simpson wrote that the wording of the motion had caused debate at a department meeting in late November and the department decided to redraft and will likely reconsider the motion in its next meeting at the end of January.
'You can't always see what you can't imagine. So if the field appears homogeneous, many students can assume that the arts are not for them,' says professor Sarah E. Lewis '01
Another factor cited by both students and faculty was the lack of diversity in the faculty in many arts and humanities departments. Elaine Dong ’17, a visual and environmental studies concentrator, said that this lack has come to feel normal for her. “Really the only non-white mentor that I’ve ever had in the visual arts is the painting teacher that I took classes with [beginning when] I was around 10 years old,” she said. “Since entering high school, all of the artists that I’ve really known well have been white. That’s not something that necessarily bothers me all that much, partially because I guess that’s all I’ve ever really known.”
Lewis added in an email that a dearth of mentors and role models of color in arts careers may perpetuate unequal representation. “As I see it, the barriers have to do with modeling and economics. By modeling, I mean that you can’t always see what you can’t imagine,” she wrote. “So if the field appears homogeneous, many students can assume that the arts are not for them.”
However, Kelsey stated his commitment to making faculty searches more inclusive and open to people with identities that are currently underrepresented on the faculty. “The most important thing for us to do, I think, vis-à-vis the undergraduates in terms of the diversity of the curriculum and addressing the diversity of the students, is to make hiring decisions that are cognizant of these needs,” he said.
Some arts and humanities departments have already begun bringing in faculty who are committed to teaching courses focused outside the traditional canon. In the Music Department, Vijay Iyer, hired in 2014, teaches courses focused on creative music, which he says has deep roots in jazz and in the African American musical tradition. Yosvany Terry, hired in 2015, teaches a “Foundations of Modern Jazz” course that incorporates the work of composers from Benin, Israel, Cuba, and Venezuela. In the Departments of Romance Languages and Literatures and History and Literature, Assistant Professor Lorgia H. García Peña, hired in 2013, is one of the University’s first professors focused on Latino studies. And Lewis, who joined the faculty in 2015, is teaching “Vision and Justice,” a class focused on the intersections of race and aesthetics in America, for the first time this year.
Faculty diversity remains a concern for many arts and humanities departments. The Department of Visual and Environmental Studies, for example, currently has no faculty members who are people of color, according to Robb Moss, the department’s chair. He emphasized, however, that the entire department is engaged in an ongoing conversation about issues of inclusivity. “[Lack of diversity], I think, is a problem, and it’s something that the faculty is talking a lot about,” he said. “People should not think that artists need to be white.”
In an emailed statement following the interview, Moss stressed the department’s dedication to inclusion. “This year, VES is mounting two searches whose chairs and committee members are committed to adding diversity to the VES faculty,” he wrote. “While the faculty in VES are extraordinary artists, scholars and educators, we are not as diverse as the fields we represent, nor are we as diverse as the students we teach. At this point in our history, it is our responsibility to improve this situation by increasing the diversity of our applicant pools and by staying alert to our selection processes. This does not mean selecting for diversity, but it does mean creating a rigorous process where everyone has a chance to be chosen.”
Carrie Lambert-Beatty, a professor in VES and history of art and architecture, added that she felt that VES has made significant progress toward mounting more inclusive faculty searches. “We are just more aware of the places where bias slips in and narrows the pool in ways that make it difficult to get a more diverse faculty,” she said. “So that’s been really important, and I see the cultural shift happening, but we don’t have the results yet that we need.” She noted that the department is small and opportunities to hire new faculty are thus relatively rare.
However, even as academic departments are becoming gradually more inclusive, students are taking matters into their own hands by exploring culture and identity through the arts outside the classroom. According to Jack Megan, director of the Office for the Arts, students have worked hard in recent years to make the campus arts scene more inclusive. “I think that students of color are in some sense taking the lead, and saying, ‘No, this is what the arts at Harvard are too. This is who we are, and we want arts and culture to reflect who we are,’” he said.
For students concentrating in disciplines both within and outside the humanities, arts-focused extracurriculars—theater, music, dance, and more—can provide a space in which to explore their own cultural traditions and to be part of a community that shares those traditions. Megan said that in his time at Harvard, he has seen campus artistic productions become significantly more diverse. “When you look at dance, for instance, 30 years ago you would have seen modern, you would have seen ballet, you might have seen tap here at Harvard,” he said. “Now you’ll see Bhangra, you’ll see the Pan-African Dance and Music Ensemble, you’ll see the South Asian Dance [Company].”
Ryan F. Boyland ’17, a black student concentrating in neurobiology, joined the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College, a choir that performs music of the African diaspora, in his sophomore year. Now the president of the group, he said that his experiences with Kuumba have extended beyond the purely musical to include explorations of identity and history. One of his most important memories with the group is of their spring 2015 tour, during which the singers visited the historically black Rust College in Mississippi, whose campus includes a site formerly used for slave auctions. “We sang, I want to say it was ‘Hold On.’ And ‘Hold On’ is a song that’s basically exactly what it says, it’s a spiritual that says, ‘Hold on just a little while longer, everything will be all right,’” he said. “And you’re singing that at this slave auction block, at this historically black college, with a crowd of primarily black students, and it just had a lot of meaning.”
Brophy said that one of the key goals of her tenure as president of HRDC has been to increase the diversity of narratives represented in Harvard theater. She emphasized that students of color looking to be involved in theater may face higher barriers to entry than white students. “I think that there’s a lot of pressure for people of color to always be representing not just themselves but generally communities of color,” she said.
She said that she has worked to increase collaboration between HRDC and more culturally-specific theater groups such as the Harvard Black Community and Student Theater Group, or BlackC.A.S.T., and TEATRO!, the Latino student theater group that restarted this year after a four-year hiatus. “We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how we can best try to reach out to the largest array of people,” she said. “We obviously don’t want it to come off as being very tokenizing, like, ‘Come tell your story,’ but we want to make sure that all people feel welcome to come into our community.”
This fall, O’Connor directed TEATRO!’s first show after its revival, “Nuestra Señora de las Nubes,” a play by contemporary Argentinian playwright Arístides Vargas that focuses on experiences of exile in Latin America. “It felt very personal to me, just because being part Ecuadorian and being an Ecuadorian citizen, I felt like it spoke to a lot of underrepresented voices that exist not within… the Latinx community at large here on campus,” he said. “The play deals with the exiles that a lot of people’s families went through... also just the general immigrant experience that a lot of people feel and that their families have gone through or that they themselves have gone through.”
O’Connor said that for him, casting the show with entirely Latino actors was essential. “Just because the themes were so rooted in that identity and that experience, it would have felt strange and inappropriate, borderline unacceptable, to have non-Latinx people playing [the roles],” he said. “They were able to bring their own lives into the text and really enhance the experience and make it more real for the people who were watching it. They really cared, because in part they were acting out pieces of their own lives.”
Other culturally-specific arts extracurriculars, however, look to attract students regardless of ethnicity or background. Kuumba, for example, is a non-audition group, as are the Asian American Dance Troupe and Ghungroo, the annual South Asian music and dance performance.
Dong, a co-captain of AADT, said that this inclusivity is an essential part of what drew her to the group. “I think on a campus like Harvard’s everyone is always super competitive, and they almost always exclusively do the things that they’ve done forever and they know they can do and are good at,” she said. “AADT, on the other hand—the majority, maybe 70 to 90 percent of AADT, are students who have never danced before college. It’s a very different atmosphere, where the people are just there really to learn a completely new skill set and to really have fun.”
Raj Vatsa ’18, an applied mathematics concentrator and one of the directors for this year’s Ghungroo, expressed similar feelings about including students from any background. “[Ghungroo] is very much South Asian, with South Asian dances and music, but the diversity of students that you end up seeing onstage is, for me, super exciting,” he said. “I came from a high school where I was one of three or four South Asian people there, and to come to a place where [people from] so many different cultures are celebrating the South Asian arts was awesome.”
For many students and faculty thinking about the intersection of the arts with issues of diversity and inclusivity, the stakes have rarely seemed so high. After an election that for many seemed to herald a resurgence of racism and xenophobia, students and faculty say that making the arts a space for dialogue has become more important than ever.
Many arts organizations on campus created opportunities for students to process the results of the election. “Kuumba opened itself up to be a space for reflection for people about the election,” Boyland said. “So for a lot of people, that can be a space of healing and catharsis.” According to O’Connor, TEATRO! also helped host a reflection event.
Many of those interviewed also emphasized the role that the arts can play in shaping national conversations about citizenship. “Whatever one thinks of immigration policy, there’s no need to demonize people,” Megan said. “So I think this issue of how the arts reflect who we are and promote inclusion or belonging is more important than ever.”
Clark expressed similar hopes. “The humanities teach you how to ask questions and to think from different points of view,” she said. “I think that what has been happening recently on the world stage is that people are not thinking about different points of view.”
Lambert-Beatty emphasized the importance of the arts in any reckoning with exclusion in American political, social, and cultural life. “I think that these are topics that can be dealt with in the language of policy and can be dealt with in the language of social science, and have to be, but that they are issues of the psyche, of culture at a level that’s not always apparent to us on the surface as we live it,” she said. “It necessitates the examination of all of the assumptions that we carry, and art is constantly bringing [these issues] up and letting us see them and giving us other ways to approach them.”
She added that the arts can also create opportunities for the imagination of alternatives to dominant cultural and political realities. “Art generates the possible, and that’s why it’s so important to have lots of different people generating the possible from lots of different perspectives,” she said.
For Lewis too, inclusivity is an imperative. “Part of what should give us a sense of the urgency of this topic—of dealing with inclusivity, of dealing with race and the arts—is that we’re dealing with a topic that shouldn’t have any barrier for entry,” she said. “We’re dealing with what it means to be creative. We’re dealing with a skill that we’re naturally endowed with at the youngest stage of our development—the ability to invent, to imagine, to dream. If this field does have barrier of entry, out of all fields, if the arts is a field that still needs work to do with inclusion, you know that we really have work to do.”
—Staff writers Ha D.H. Le and Brittany N. Ellis contributed to the reporting of this story.
—Staff writer Elizabeth C. Keto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.