Students have called upon Harvard University to create a multicultural center for just over 50 years now — to no avail. In fact, the Harvard-Radcliffe Afro-American Cultural Center opened up in 1969 only to close five years later after receiving zero funding from the University. With the largest endowment of any university currently sitting at $40.9 billion, Harvard definitely has the ability to afford funding a multicultural center. It’s not as if the university doesn’t like to spend its capital either; the chairs out in Harvard Yard alone cost nearly $800 each. However, when a cohort of student groups submitted a proposal to then-Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III in 1995, the dean responded: “It would be inconsistent with [Harvard's] purpose to set aside space for racial, ethnic and cultural groups. Third-world or multicultural centers promote racial separation.” This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Harvard has acknowledged the importance of diversity in its imperfect race-conscious admissions process and Judge Allison D. Burroughs agreed in the Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard court ruling. She defended the benefits of diversity, stating, “Diversity will foster the tolerance, acceptance and understanding that will ultimately make race conscious admissions obsolete.” But on campus, diversity feels very superficial. The College flaunts its diversity on its website, taking pride in the fact that there are “more than fifty cultural, ethnic, and international student organizations.” Yet some of these organizations and cultural affinity groups are literally hidden underground in the basements of Harvard’s freshman dormitories.
The hypocritical nature of Harvard’s attitude towards diversity has to change. It’s time for Harvard to stop placing cultural affinity groups underground while broadly displaying diversity everywhere but the school itself.
The natural question is: Why do we even need a multicultural center? Imagine putting yourself into the shoes of a multiethnic boy during his freshman year at Harvard. This boy has often felt isolated or excluded from communities in his life due to his very mixed and diverse background of being African American, Indian, and Korean. He looks ethnically ambiguous and has a difficult time fitting in at Harvard. Despite efforts to find community — whether it be joining the Black Men’s Forum or the Korean Association — he continues to feel out of place, like he doesn’t fully belong in any one community. He feels the lack of a common space that others find in predominantly white finals clubs funded by predominantly white alumni.
Now, this isn’t just one random case. This is a very real experience that many Harvard students feel. In fact, that multiethnic boy you were just picturing is me.
We need a multicultural center now more than ever. Harvard should have taken the initiative to fund this center long ago when Yale, Princeton, and Brown built culturally distinct centers for its student body nearly 50 years ago. We are all familiar with the adage, “it’s better late than never.” But now Harvard is 60 years late and it’s time to enact real change. Students have been adamant about the need for a multicultural center, yet our voices remain unheard and we continue to be denied. Last year, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana said, “Harvard is carefully considering a multicultural center and is making sure to consult all affected affiliates… We don’t want to just rush into something without making sure that we really brought everybody along and everybody’s had a chance to participate in what way feels right to them.” It has been over 50 years. Since the need for a multicultural center is not a priority for the administration, we need to reinvigorate the student body on this issue.
We need to reanimate the student body enough that the administration can finally listen to us. Yet even students who try to organize events to bring people from different backgrounds together still encounter the same problem of lacking a space. I myself have struggled to book a space for a concert event I’m hosting to demonstrate the need for a multicultural center. Ironically enough, this in and of itself actually proves the point that there is a lack of a common space for minority students and a need for a multicultural center at Harvard.
Students of color have left the basement. We are standing in front of the Harvard administration, waiting to be heard.
Nicolas R. Eccles ’22 is a Crimson Editorial comper in Mather House.