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Op-Eds

In Pursuit of Sustainable Inclusive Excellence

Yesterday, we released the results of an unprecedented survey designed to indicate how we might create a culture of inclusive excellence at Harvard University. By deciding to regularly check our community’s institutional “pulse,” we are now positioned to better manage our community’s institutional health.

The launch last spring of the Pilot Pulse Survey on Inclusion and Belonging is the most recent in a series of other similarly foundational decisions made by and about Harvard in the last half century toward creating a more welcoming Harvard.

In April 1968, in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Harvard and other elite institutions decided to launch the diversity surge with record-breaking enrollments of minorities, beginning in September 1969. Fifty years after that decision, University Presidents Drew G. Faust and Lawrence S. Bacow decided to supplement previous diversity efforts by establishing and funding a new Office for Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging. And a few weeks ago, U.S. District Judge Allison D. Burroughs decided in favor of Harvard’s “whole-person” admissions process, thereby upholding the existing laws that regard diversity in education as a worthy, beneficial pursuit.

But diversifying our community is not enough, on its own. That is why three years ago, the Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging was appointed. There was a need to understand whether, why, and how those from what they called “groups previously excluded” (including women, people of color, religious minorities, individuals with disabilities, members of the BGLTQ community, and others) were less able to flourish here at Harvard. The Task Force also wondered what institutional changes might help position everyone to thrive.

One way to set the stage for everyone to thrive is for leadership to listen, very carefully. This is why we developed and pursued the Pilot Pulse Survey, marking the first time that Harvard leaders asked everyone in our community to share perceptions about the campus culture.

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What did you tell us? Most of you (77 percent) expressed some form of agreement with the statement, “I feel like I belong at Harvard.” We are encouraged by this number, but, importantly, we are focused on the 23 percent of you who did not agree, and the 25 percent of you who only “somewhat agreed.” It is also telling that, according to the data, those from groups previously excluded were often more likely to answer in ways that do not indicate a favorable sense of belonging at Harvard. This reflects a reality for far too many in our community that isn’t acceptable, and we are committed to doing what we can to change Harvard’s culture to ensure this is not the case.

Addressing this will take creativity and innovation from all of us across campus. Schools and units across Harvard have developed strategic plans for strengthening diversity, inclusion, and belonging. We also launched the Harvard Culture Lab Innovation Fund, which will provide an opportunity for all members of the Harvard community to apply for competitive grants to pursue projects that will advance sustainable inclusive excellence — which is our aspiration, inclusivity that is ingrained in all that we do. And we’ve formed Harvard’s first ever Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Leadership Council, with representatives from all of Harvard’s school and units, to generate actions in response to the survey, coordinate and support efforts across campus, and share promising practices.

Most importantly, we will continue to value your perspectives. Even as we deepen our understanding of these initial survey findings, we have already committed to conducting the first official version of the Pulse Survey, with additional and refined demographic questions, in 2021 and every other year thereafter. On the road ahead, these surveys will help us to regularly assess our University-level progress and improve in areas where we have fallen short.

For nearly 90 percent of the lifespan of this institution, the Harvard community reflected privileged sons of New England’s elites. As a result, Harvard was ill-equipped to realize a diversity-driven vision of greatness.

With the very intentional actions that this institution has taken, starting 50 years ago, that has changed. And, it means the true greatness and excellence we now seek is ahead, rather than behind us. As President Bacow has said, “We need diversity because we learn from our differences.” It should encourage and inspire in and well beyond Cambridge that the mix of students on campus today at Harvard resembles the nation and world they will be challenged to lead and shape in the years ahead. As we now aspire to fully harvest our diversity, this will add true dimension and power to our leadership capacity, institutionally, and to that of our graduates, individually.

John S. Wilson is the Senior Adviser and Strategist to University President Lawrence S. Bacow. He leads the University’s new Office for Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging.

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