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When We Return: Hope for a New Harvard

By Lauren Yang
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

In the chaos of the spring, it is easy to forget that the end of the fall semester was chaotic too. When graduate students went on strike, not only did finals seem uncertain but so did the coming semester. If only we knew!

The story of COVID-19 and the University’s sudden transition online has relegated the year’s headlines to footnotes: Nov. 23 — “Hundreds of Divestment Protesters Storm Field, Interrupting Harvard-Yale Game;” Feb. 20 — “Harvard Police Arrest Man in Smith Campus Center After Physical Altercation, Drawing Criticism;” May 1 — “Harvard Kept Ties With Jeffrey Epstein After ’08 Conviction, Report Shows.”

But the issues these events represent will still exist when we return. Much will be different, but how much and in what ways are open questions — ones we can’t ignore in the interim. At every turn, Harvard seems to struggle with a fundamental question of identity. School or company? Community or network? University or corporation?

We’d like to think about our eventual return as a bit of a reset: What can Harvard be after COVID-19?

The University in the Mirror

At the kind of University we aspire to attend, administrative reviews matter and facilitate meaningful change. Robust procedures for self-examination are impartial, triggered swiftly, and are responsive to the needs of the most vulnerable parties.

Time and time again, Harvard has failed to meet these standards.

Perhaps uniquely concerning has been the case of Harvard University Police Department and its chief, Francis D. “Bud” Riley.

A Crimson investigation exposing systemic racism, sexism, and alleged favoritism within HUPD highlighted Riley’s role in perpetuating this culture in his department over a period of nearly 30 years. Further, in February, Anthony T. Carvello — an officer with a history of using excessive force such that one man he arrested said he struggled to breathe — violently arrested a young homeless black man in the Smith Campus Center. In the wake of the report’s release, HUPD commenced an internal review of its own misconduct. Among the review’s leaders? Riley himself. Perhaps, as both judge and defendant, Riley can maintain the integrity of the investigation, subjecting himself to full scrutiny. But we’re not counting on it.

An inability to self-examine has hampered the University’s efforts to solve other enduring campus problems like sexual misconduct. In the last four years, the prevalence of sexual misconduct on campus has remained steady. Thirty-three percent of female undergraduates have experienced nonconsensual sexual contact since entering the College. And the University’s response to past cases of sexual misconduct, such as when allegations were raised against former Government Professor Jorge I. Dominguez, drew criticism from multiple victims for perceived administrative “disinterest” and a failure to adequately listen to their concerns.

Yesterday, The Crimson reported a set of sweeping allegations of sexual misconduct against three leading faculty in the Anthropology Department. A patriarchal culture has inhibited, intimidated, and even sexually victimized women as scholars and students.

And though the Department opened itself to a recent review, it seems that oversight of that patriarchy has always fallen in the all-too-complacent hands of the patriarchs themselves. Perhaps the biggest case in point: Gary Urton, one of the named professors, was tasked in his role as the then-department chair to handle an allegation against fellow professor Theodore C. Bestor after it surfaced in 2013. At the time, Urton was allegedly engaged in an affair with a student.

We recognize that durable progress in making our campus safer requires deeper cultural changes. But Harvard must interrogate and revamp its own procedures — a task made only more important (and more difficult) by the United States Department of Education’s new set of Title IX guidelines. The guidelines not only narrow the definition of sexual misconduct, but also limit the University’s ability to address complaints of misconduct that occurs at unrecognized off-campus locations, including final clubs.

A University seeks to protect its students. A corporation minimizes risk and liability. As Harvard begins to determine how it will approach the new Title IX guidelines, it must be willing to use its political weight to resist the regulations in Washington, D.C., as it has done on other issuesmost notably immigration.

But fighting the Department of Education will not be enough. Now more than ever, the University must be creative and aggressive in exploring new ways to erode the culture of sexual harassment and assault that has long pervaded our campus and to develop independent procedures — above and beyond Title IX — to investigate and intervene in patterns and places of violence and predatory behavior.

When the safety of our community members is so often in Harvard’s hands, genuine self-examination cannot be an afterthought. Harvard’s police force can only claim to act with care and respect if it also does so behind closed doors, and works urgently to right itself — starting by ditching the man who has fostered a quarter century of bigoted policing. And Harvard’s administration, if truly committed to a campus free from sexual assault, must creatively transcend federal policies of disregard.

Who Keeps the Lights on?

Harvard most obviously embodies a corporation when it comes to its financial interests. When dealing with funding and donations, the corporate drive seems to almost always prevail — time and again undermining Harvard’s moral integrity.

The maintenance of personal and financial ties to donor and convicted sex trafficker Jeffrey E. Epstein a full decade after his crimes were known stands as a particularly appalling example. As recently as 2018, a convicted sex offender was repeatedly invited to our campus, offered a private office, welcomed into classes, and allowed to rehabilitate his image using a Harvard website. The recent report concerning Epstein’s connections to the University demonstrates that faculty members who urged Harvard to reconsider their decision to refuse money from Epstein were depressingly willing to overlook underage prostitution for monetary gain.

But tainted money imperils Harvard’s ability to perform objective research and promote academic freedom. Epstein didn’t just buy access to the Harvard name — he also bought himself a psychology fellowship for which he had zero qualifications. Our institution’s academic standards were discarded.

Just months ago, University Professor Charles M. Lieber was charged with lying to the U.S. Department of Defense about accepting $1.74 million in research funding and hundreds of thousands in pocket money from a Chinese initiative known for academic espionage. This deception inevitably erodes public trust and has even led some conspiracy theorists to believe Lieber created coronavirus.

Harvard’s official connections to foreign powers with deep pockets may prove even more egregious. A recent Crimson exposé revealed that at least one Harvard administrator has attempted to silence Chinese dissidents on campus to avoid jeopardizing the University’s relationship with China, growing in influence on the global academic stage. Harvard has also cozied up to Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman despite many organizations cutting ties following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the Prince’s affiliates and Saudi-led torture in Yemen. And though not all money from foreign sources should be rejected out of hand, Harvard has repeatedly ignored the crimes of despicable people and regimes as long as they open their checkbooks.

Still, the fallout of the Epstein debacle demonstrates the untenability of a purely corporate outlook. That the University donated its remaining Epstein money to support victims of sexual assault after mounting pressure hints at a degree of self-awareness in this regard — a tacit, perhaps forced, rejection of the anything-goes corporate mentality. But acknowledging the corporate-academic duality is not the same as successfully wrestling with it.

If campus activism has taught us anything this year, it's that our student body will not tolerate the banal prioritization of growing the endowment without contemplating its ethical implications. From storming football fields in defiance of long-standing traditions, to reporting on our coddling of authoritarian governments, students have resisted the abdication of Harvard’s moral responsibilities.

When students have pushed to make Harvard’s financial underworld more ethical, the University has tended to respond with incrementalism. The University — in acknowledgment that its investments are political — has given an inch by committing to reaching a carbon-neutral endowment by 2050. Here, its moral aspirations, though better than nothing, are meager. Many peer institutions such as Oxford University and Georgetown University have thrown down the moral gauntlet by committing to full divestment from direct fossil fuel holdings as soon as possible. Harvard’s commitment to achieve less in 30 years time rings hollow.

Given that the Epstein debacle will prompt changes in donation guidelines, perhaps similar transgressions will be rarer. But the constant pull of the corporate impulse will necessitate a deeper investigation and reckoning with how intellectual advancement is sponsored.

The New Grad Student

Of course, coronavirus — at the University and beyond — has surfaced many questions about labor as well. Which jobs are essential? And which are valued and protected as such?

So when so much else has seemed to stop, graduate student union negotiations have perhaps unsurprisingly endured.

Negotiations between the nascent graduate student union and the University have been slow — with ongoing disagreement about important issues, not least discrimination and harassment proceedings. During the fall semester, the union grew so fed up it voted to authorize a strike. On the first day of reading period, graduate students stopped working … mostly. Though they stopped teaching and grading undergraduate courses, disrupting finals, they continued to conduct vital research, complete coursework, and act as residential proctors and tutors.

Graduate students are not purely employees, nor are they purely students. As part of an agreement reached in April, Harvard will cap graduate student workload to twenty hours per week. But it seems obvious that graduate student contribution to campus life and the institution’s intellectual output will continue to exceed those bounds. So too should the University’s obligations to them.

What the graduate student unionization process has indicated is the extent to which the University struggles to clearly and consistently parse its dual and often conflicting role as patron of intellectual work and employer of intellectual workers.

Consider non-tenure-track faculty, who have not received the sort of timeline extension granted to many of their tenure-track peers. Despite their doing much of the same work as tenure-track faculty — teaching, advising, conducting research, administrating — they have been sorted more fully into the category of employee. Where the University has made a sort of bet on the long-term potential of tenure-track faculty, it has no such stake in non-tenure-track faculty.

But graduate students have demonstrated that Harvard’s dual role as patron and boss is not so clear cut. It’s not as if one stance is obviously more appropriate or just than the other. Indeed, graduate students don’t want more University patronage — after all, that has historically allowed the University to take their labor for granted. Instead, they want to establish themselves — or at least some part of themselves for some defined set of hours — as contracted and protected employees.

The last month or so has seen rapid advancements in the union negotiation process. In a “comprehensive compromise proposal,” the union accepted the University’s most recent proposal for compensation, child-care and insurance provisions for dependents, protections for international students, among other critical facets of a comprehensive deal. It’s meaningful progress — especially given a March controversy over whether the University would even continue negotiation after it transitioned online.

The biggest shift, however, has been that both parties are now shooting for a one-year, rather than permanent, contract. In some sense, this more modest target may be a good thing — acknowledging the uncertainty of the year to come (not to mention those that follow), as well as the need for experimentation as the University and its graduate students continue to explore the evolving terms of their relationship.

Looking forward, we urge the following: First, we continue to stand by the union’s outstanding demand for third party arbitration of discrimination and sexual harassment allegations. Second, a one-year agreement can’t be the end of the University’s engagement with the union or the big questions it continues to raise.

Third, graduate students’ labor struggle cannot operate in a vacuum. What graduate students are fighting for must be bigger than their own cause. The University has shown itself all-too-capable of putting off its responsibility to its workers — not least the maintenance, building, dining, security, and other staff that often work low-wage or agency-contracted jobs. What graduate students are hashing out in the negotiating room implicates their livelihoods in powerful ways too.

Harvard’s graduate students are, above all, members of our community — mentors and friends, tutors and proctors. Even as they pioneer a new course of unionized employment, we continue to insist on their centrality to the life of this campus.

Maintaining Moral Optimism

Sometimes the old joke — Harvard is really just a hedge fund with a university attached — feels all too real. The University’s corporate interests often seem to outstrip its educational, scholarly, and ethical commitments.

Students feel this conflict in the course of academic life, and the continued upsurge of activism shows we do not accept it passively. It was students who first investigated and exposed HUPD’s entrenched racism and sexism. It was students demanded divestment on the football field. And it was student-workers who struck for higher wages and better protections and procedures to combat sexual assault. We are deeply inspired by our peers — eager to see how they persist remotely and when we return.

Our peers remind us that moral optimism — the courage to imagine a more just University and world — is not futile. We dare to believe that when we return the University can be a more just, self-reflective, and equitable institution. If COVID-19 offers anything, it is the chance for a fresh start — one informed by a more confident sense of why we come together year after year in the pursuit of knowledge and the values and mutual commitments that must underwrite that pursuit.

The University must hold itself and its most powerful members accountable — preferably before the big stories break.

The University must hold its donors to basic ethical standards. And it may have to take some economic losses to make some moral gains.

The University must treat all its workers with equal dignity, because this campus — as we saw last fall or four years ago when dining hall workers struck — does not exist in the minds of a handful of professors, but in the efforts of all of us together.

If the pandemic proves anything, the real illness is only sort of COVID-19; and the real cure is always the power of people together — not as a corporation and maybe not even as an institution, but as a collective body of moral self-making.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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