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‘A Toxic Space’: BGLTQ Graduate Students Say Harvard Fails to Support Them

Lehman Hall is the main building for the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
Lehman Hall is the main building for the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. By Jessica M. Wang
By Shera S. Avi-Yonah, Crimson Staff Writer

Last May, Ph.D. student Madeleine F. Jennewein sat for hours, remaining mostly quiet, at a Harvard student fair held in cobblestoned Dudley courtyard.

She was there to tell new Graduate School of Arts and Sciences admits about the resources available to BGLTQ students on Harvard’s campus. Jennewein noticed that every other table at the fair was manned by a paid staffer or student. She was unpaid.

Suddenly, she realized she couldn’t do it anymore.

“I kind of reached my breaking point,” Jennewein said. “Every single other table was like a paid person who had an office, and then there's me, trying to make it seem like we have resources.”

Jennewein and other BGLTQ Harvard graduate students say they have long sought more help and resources from University administrators, with little luck. Specifically, students say the Harvard lacks paid staff, events, and advising targeted to BGLTQ-identifying graduate students — and fails to keep up with peer Ivy League institutions who do offer these services.

The push to improve the situation for BGLTQ GSAS affiliates began well before Jennewein arrived at Harvard, when leaders of LGBTQ@GSAS — the student group that serves BGLTQ graduate students — first asked administrators for more funding and dedicated resources. In 2016, the group released an open letter describing problems they said they faced in Cambridge including “homophobia and transphobia,” “implicit bias,” and “attrition.”

“Across Harvard there is an unspoken assumption is that everyone is cisgender and fits into the gender binary, which means that departments often fail to integrate students who do not,” the statement read. “We understand anecdotally that a disproportionate number of students who have left their programs are queer, female, minorities, or some combination thereof.”

The letter made several asks of GSAS administrators, chief among them the installation of a Dudley fellow to serve BGLTQ students. Dudley House — which assists both graduate students and undergraduates — employs 26 graduate fellows in fields including “athletics,” “arts,” and “food literacy” to organize events for Harvard affiliates interested in their dedicated areas.

Though GSAS hired two diversity fellows last semester, it has never employed a fellow focused on BGLTQ issues. A Harvard spokesperson did not directly respond to a question asking whether GSAS plans to hire a BGLTQ-focused fellow.

LGBTQ@GSAS leaders emailed Dudley House Faculty Deans James M. Hogle and Doreen M. Hogle last year renewing their call for the Hogles to add a fellow for BGLTQ students. The group has also cited the event Jennewein staffed without pay as one of the reasons Dudley needs to pay someone to focus on challenges confronted by BGLTQ graduate students.

“Unless the fellows have, in their job description, specific requirements that they implement programming for LGBTQ students or other minorities as the case may be, simply having queer or other minority students as fellows is not going to effectively support these populations,” group leaders wrote in the email. “Instead, it places those fellows in the position of potentially not serving the minority community they are a part of or the GSAS community as a whole well.”

In a chain of emails LGBTQ@GSAS later posted publicly on Facebook, Hogle responded by arguing that the Dudley Fellows program is not the right medium to accomplish the BGLTQ group’s goals. He wrote that “a few concrete examples of our working model for Fellows” help explain why he believes GSAS should not create a fellow position specifically for BGLTQ students.

In one email, he compared the students’ request for a BGLTQ-focused fellow to a previous request that Harvard hire a fellow focused on jazz.

“A[t] various time points an applicant said ‘I want to direct a jazz band,’ so we created a position within the Music Fellow group whose primary responsibility was to organize and conduct a jazz band, rather than created a position called a Jazz Band Fellow,” he wrote.

GSAS administrators ultimately worked with LGBTQ@GSAS to deploy a sticker campaign aimed at BGLTQ graduate students. The stickers read: “You Are Welcome Here.”

Ph.D. student Sa-kiera T. J. Hudson, who is a member of the DuBois Society, a GSAS group for underrepresented minorities, agreed with Jennewein’s characterization of the issues BGLTQ students face.

“There are a lot of departmental issues, and the question becomes: where do you go when you have issues and the DGS is not particularly helpful,” she said. “There isn’t that much infrastructure in terms of support, but if you want to throw a party, you can.”

Asked about criticisms of the Hogles, a Harvard spokesperson pointed to recent steps GSAS has taken to improve the overall graduate student experience. In addition to adding the new diversity fellows, the school has organized workshops on diversity and inclusion and launched an outreach campaign to student affinity groups.

GSAS Dean for Academic Programs and Diversity Sheila Thomas — who Jennewein and Hudson both called an ally within the administration — wrote in an emailed statement that the school is currently working to better support its BGLTQ students.

“The GSAS Office of Diversity and Minority Affairs (ODMA) regularly meets with underrepresented minority students, including student groups. ODMA is determining how to expand this model to the LGBTQ community so that we can better support their particular needs,” Thomas wrote.

Hudson said that, while these changes are positive, serious problems linger. She called Harvard “a toxic space” for some graduate students — especially those identifying as BGLTQ.

“You have some resources, but then you go into the lived experiences of some people and they don’t match up. That’s harder to advocate for and harder to talk about, when you say, ‘I don’t feel like I belong at Dudley House,’” Hudson said. “It gets to a point where people don’t go to Dudley House because they feel like there’s nothing there for them.”

Leaders within LGBTQ@GSAS have noted that Harvard trails behind peer institutions when it comes to supporting BGLTQ affiliates. Harvard’s Office of BGLTQ Student Life serves only undergraduates, while similar offices at Brown, Cornell, MIT, Princeton, UPenn, and Yale serve both college and graduate students. Several of these centers also employ paid graduate fellows tasked with focusing on BGLTQ issues.

Hudson and Jennewein said the resource gap at Harvard leaves BGLTQ graduate students without a place where they can seek help, given many graduate students do not want to use resources meant for undergraduates.

As BGLTQ graduate students continue to call for more support, GSAS student life is undergoing a broader series of changes.

The Hogles announced earlier this year they plan to step down in 2019, a move GSAS Dean Emma Dench said prompted her to consider reorganizing the way the school approaches student life. Currently, some College students — in particular those living outside the 12 upperclassman residential Houses — and GSAS students are both served by Dudley House.

Under Dench’s new system, debuted in October, Dudley House will cease to exist and undergraduate and graduate students will be served by two separate bodies. One — dubbed the “Dudley Community” — will serve undergraduates living outside the Houses, College students living in the Dudley Co-Op, visiting students, and students who live on campus during the summer. The other will serve only GSAS students.

“Since Dudley House broadened its mission to include GSAS students in 1991, thousands of students have benefited from intellectual and social activities organized by their peers,” Dench wrote in an email announcing the change. “We now have the opportunity to enhance these opportunities, enabling our students to make life outside the library or lab a priority.”

Jennewein said she is “optimistic” that, under the new system, BGLTQ students will find Lehman Hall a more welcoming space.

But Hudson said any real progress will require major changes and increased student input.

“[The Hogles] had a lot of power in terms of how to structure Dudley,” Hudson said. “Maybe the Hogles being gone will be good, but the structures in place need to be completely rehauled.”

Correction: Nov. 29, 2018

A previous version of this article incorrectly indicated that Dudley House Faculty Deans James M. Hogle and Doreen M. Hogle collaborated with LGBTQ@GSAS to organize a sticker campaign meant to make BGLTQ graduate students feel welcome on campus. In fact, the Hogles were not involved with the sticker campaign.

Correction: Nov. 27, 2018

A previous version of this article incorrectly indicated that Dudley House hired two diversity fellows last semester. In fact, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences hired the fellows.

Correction: Nov. 27, 2018

A previous version of this article incorrectly indicated that LGBTQ@GSAS leaders emailed Dudley House Faculty Deans James M. Hogle and Doreen M. Hogle in April 2018 to renew their call for a BGLTQ-focused fellow. In fact, group leaders emailed the faculty deans last year.

—Staff writer Shera S. Avi-Yonah can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @saviyonah.

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