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Town Hall Meeting Questions 'Community Conversations'

By Jonathan G. Adler, Crimson Staff Writer

A crowd of more than 20 debated the efficacy of required “community conversations” on identity after recent polling showed that about one fifth of a large portion of the freshman class found the program “very/generally ineffective.”

At a town hall meeting Thursday evening, undergraduates discussed the programming, held annually for freshmen during the first days of fall semester, that centers on race, identity, and inclusion. This year, all freshmen were required to read Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s autobiography, "My Beloved World", and to discuss the work with their entryway in a facilitated setting.

Polling collected by Harvard’s Office of Institutional Research found that about a fifth of the over 1300 polled freshmen considered this year’s conversations “very/generally ineffective” across three categories. Notably, male respondents were significantly less likely to rate the conversations as effective compared to their female peers.

“We saw the results, and we’ve seen past results, and we know that there’s something missing in how this is going,” Katherine W. Steele, Director of College Initiative and Student Development at the FDO, said. “This matters to us. There’s no point in bringing everyone together in the way that Harvard brings people together if we’re not actually going to learn together.”

Steele and UC leaders said Thursday’s town hall stemmed from a desire to share data on the conversations and seek student feedback on improvements to the conversations.

“We have the survey, we know what the numbers are, but we want to put faces to those numbers,” Nicholas Whittaker ’19, a UC representative for Crimson Yard, said. “We want to see what students really have to say.”

Audience members offered several suggestions for ways the conversations could be made more effective. UC representative for Oak Yard Olu Oisaghie ’19 said he thought that part of the problem with this year’s conversations was the required reading.

“It was an interesting memoir and it was nice to read, but I don't know if it was very conducive toward the kind of issues that community conversations is meant to be addressing,” Oisaghie said. “There are much better readings out there that could capture what we're going for in terms of sparking conversations about diversity and race relations on campus.”

Other students, including UC vice-president Daniel V. Banks ’17 questioned the length of the required reading, which he said students were unlikely to read in full.

“Something that might be easier to accomplish is making the reading short and having it be Harvard-specific,” Banks said. “A lot of the heated personal debates going on now are things that directly involve Harvard and its complex history.”

UC president Shaiba Rather ’17 said she was frustrated with the fact that this conversation was the only required one of its kind during students’ tenure at the College.

“I think we should hold ourselves to a higher standard where we don't expect this conversation to be the only one our entire four years,” Rather said.

The Undergraduate Council’s Freshman Class Council and the Freshman Dean’s Office sponsored the town hall on Thursday evening.

–Staff writer Jonathan G. Adler can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JonathanGAdler.

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