It’s impossible to ignore that Lawrence S. Bacow is the second white, male economist named Lawrence to serve as Harvard’s president. And for a student of color who has constantly struggled to see himself represented at the University, the choice is uninspiring and frankly a bit disappointing.
Since the beginning of the search, stakeholders noted the need for a diverse slate of candidates. In 2007, University President Drew G. Faust made history as Harvard’s first female president. This time around, there was hope the next president would be another woman or, for the first time in Harvard’s 381-year history, a person of color. Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria and University Professor Danielle S. Allen were both floated as possible, and highly capable, candidates of color. The presidential search committee’s secrecy makes it impossible to know, however, if there were any other candidates of color and how seriously they were considered for the position. Ultimately, the search committee decided on a candidate matching the demographics of 27 of the last 28 presidents.
There’s no reason to believe that Bacow will not be a capable president. He has administrative experience and an intensely intimate understanding of Harvard, having served on its highest governing body. If his track record at Tufts serves as any indication, he could be great for students from marginalized backgrounds. As president of Tufts University, he oversaw the near doubling of financial aid available and the establishment of an Office of Institutional Diversity. On paper, he could be better for students of color than any of his predecessors.
Regrettably, his presidency won’t improve the extreme lack of role models for students of color to look up to.
As of 2017, only 3.2 percent of Harvard faculty members were female underrepresented minorities. 5.4 percent were male underrepresented minorities. As of 2014, only 14 percent of executive, administrative, and managerial roles were filled by ethnic minorities. Meanwhile, 64 percent of service and maintenance staff members were minorities. Black and Latino Harvard students see themselves more represented in the dining hall and service staff than they do in the classroom or Massachusetts Hall.
If the 29th president of Harvard were a person of color, non-white students could have looked to the most powerful position in higher education and seen themselves. At a time when the average university president in the United States is a 62-year-old married white male with a doctorate, Harvard could have stood out as an exception. An institution known for its history could have been lauded for choosing a leader that looked like the future. Instead, Harvard chose a 66-year-old married white male with a doctorate.
Representation alone would not improve the experiences of underrepresented minorities at Harvard. Institutional support requires a commitment by administrators, regardless of their gender or ethnicity. But when the walls of our dining halls and libraries are dominated with portraits of white men, it’s important to see that brown and black faces have a role in influencing the trajectory of an institution we love dearly. The disappointment that I, and a number of other Harvard students of color, felt at the announcement of Bacow comes from the fear that people of color hold miniscule say in how our university is run.
Bacow’s responsibility now lies in dissuading that fear. He has to make a concerted effort to meet with students and faculty of color and hear their complaints. He must learn from student activists instead of dismissing them. Bacow must acknowledge where Harvard fails and commit to making improvements that will ensure students don’t have reasons to doubt that they belong here.
Harvard’s next president does not look like me. He does not look like the majority of the freshman class or classes to come. He does not understand, first-hand, what it means to be reduced to your gender or the color of your skin.
He must listen when students explain that race and gender alter the kind of Harvard experience they have. And, more than that, he must prepare Harvard and its students for a future that is increasingly dependent on the expertise of women and people of color.
Ruben E. Reyes Jr. ’19, a former Editorial Chair, is a History and Literature concentrator in Leverett House.
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