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The Unsung Story of Diversity at Harvard

By Robert E. Proctor, Contributing Writer

As Housing Day approaches and we celebrate “randomization” as a mechanism to diversify the House system, Harvard still struggles to make House staff more diverse. According to House lore, in the early 1990’s there was a top ranked law student, and later president of the Harvard Law Review, who applied to be a tutor in each Harvard College House. Without so much of an interview, every House outright rejected him—save one that rejected him after his interview. This law student went on to become the 44th President of the United States. (Whether this story is true is not as important as its plausibility to those familiar with the House system’s historical hiring practices.)

Over 200 years after its founding, the United States elected Barack H. Obama the first African American President—a shamefully long overdue milestone. Yet, the United States was still ahead of Harvard, over a hundred years older, which failed to appoint African American House Masters until 2009. The belated appointment of Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr. and Stephanie Robinson as House Masters (now known as Faculty Deans) of Winthrop House highlights that, prior to 2009, Harvard either did not consider it a moral imperative to diversify its House leadership or no one took notice and really cared. How ironic that the United States had an African American president before Harvard had an African American House Master.

Certainly Harvard made incremental progress to diversify the House system before Ron and Stephanie’s arrival, but true change through Winthrop House is what has occurred since their appointment as they tirelessly usher in a movement for more diversity and inclusion at Harvard in all respects, including, but not limited to, the Winthrop tutor and House staff, currently comprised of a diverse and motley group of people advising, teaching, and mentoring those affectionately called Winthropians by some and reigning Straus Cup champions by others.

Their progress is clear by looking at the photos adorning the Senior Common Room walls of the tutors and staff dating back to the 1950’s as optic proof of Winthrop’s dramatic evolution since 2009. The photos of House staff in the years immediately before Ron and Stephanie's appointment are noticeably lacking in the rich diversity that defines Winthrop House today. Indeed, even looking at the ‘08-‘09 group photo of Winthrop House tutors and staff, one sees an anachronous image—a predominantly white male crowd, a few women, and the sole African American Building Manager giving the optical illusion of some diversity, but strikingly monochromatic… until after 2009 when the photos begin to explode with color.

However, creating more diversity in Winthrop within a school historically silent about the discriminatory history of the House system is easier said than done. Change is an uneasy pill to swallow. This is not to ignore Harvard’s commitment to diversify its student body, but exposes a key area where the College was sorely lacking prior to 2009 even after diversifying its student body. The subtle, yet clearly subordinating, message Harvard sent to its historically marginalized students was: “You can attend school here, but your access pretty much stops there.”

The intrinsic effect in diversifying the makeup of the tutor and House staff is immeasurable. A student’s House experience quite often defines their Harvard experience. Winthrop’s reputation of zealous House spirit and the increase of diversity within its staff are not coincidental. Tutors and staff are able to connect with a broader range of students based on shared backgrounds, providing a much-needed piece in the mosaic of college resources. A diverse tutor staff creates a more welcoming and safe space for students to divulge personal struggles, feel less afraid to seek out academic advice and guidance without the stigma of being considered unqualified, less apprehensive to seek out mental health treatment, and enhances the daily dining hall conversations where much of the Harvard education occurs.

With varied human resources within the House, students are less likely to fall through the proverbial cracks. The continued protests over lack of inclusion, pervasive microaggressions, and the frustrations of students of color that boiled over on campuses such as Yale and Mizzou, and at Harvard Law School, should remind us that a diverse student body is not enough. For Harvard to realize its diversity mission, it should follow Winthrop’s lead and be as aggressive about recruiting diverse staff in each House as it is in attracting a diverse undergraduate class each year.

Hopefully, Harvard will reproduce Ron and Stephanie’s success in creating a House where the staff resembles the diversity of students they serve. Their remake of Winthrop in a few short years has changed the face of Winthrop and its legacy—and the evidence of their work is crystal clear. Harvard has realized the consequential benefits of appointing Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr. and Stephanie Robinson as Faculty Deans of Winthrop House.

Good begets good, diversity begets diversity.

Robert E. Proctor, a 1995 graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is a Clinical Instructor at Harvard Law School and Scholar in Residence at Winthrop House.

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