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Harvard Coalition Pens Letter to President Bacow Calling for Racial Justice

University President Lawrence S. Bacow typically works out of an office in Massachusetts Hall.
University President Lawrence S. Bacow typically works out of an office in Massachusetts Hall. By Sydney R. Mason
By Michelle G. Kurilla, Crimson Staff Writer

The Harvard Coalition for Black Lives, a group spanning multiple schools and student organizations, penned a letter to University President Lawrence S. Bacow Friday asking the University to take a number of actions to promote racial justice.

The letter calls on the University to match donations from students, postdoctoral fellows, staff, and faculty to the Massachusetts Bail Fund, Violence in Boston, Black Lives Matter Boston, and the National Black Justice Coalition by donating an equal or larger amount to support activism. It also requests the school furnish pro bono legal defense for protesters who are detained.

“We ask for your partnership in our mission to fight against racial injustice and dismantle the structures and mechanisms that harm the Black community and other communities of color,” the letter reads.

The letter comes amid nationwide outcry against police brutality and anti-Black racism prompted by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and others at the hands of police. Protestors — including Harvard students — have taken to the streets of nearly every major American city over the past week, and undergraduates have mobilized to raise funds, circulate petitions, and share educational materials on antiracism.

Bacow received the letter and sent a preliminary response to the coalition, according to University Spokesperson Jason A. Newton.

“I appreciate the candor and the care with which you have presented your arguments, as well as your commitment to working together across Schools to address an issue that affects all of us,” Bacow wrote in response to the letter.

In the letter, the coalition urges divestment from Harvard’s “current policing structures” and disclosure of Harvard's current relationship with local police departments.

In September 2019, HUPD helped Cambridge police officers arrest a dozen protestors on trespassing charges against United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement at Amazon’s Kendall Square office.

This spring, a Crimson investigation uncovered repeated instances of racism and sexism in Harvard’s police department spanning the past 28 years. Shortly afterwards, witnesses alleged in February that an HUPD officer used excessive force in an arrest at the Smith Campus Center. A subsequent Crimson investigation found the arresting officer, Anthony T. Carvello, had used force while arresting three black homeless men at the Smith Center within a span of five months.

This week, a photo of an HUPD officer monitoring a protest off campus in Boston reignited calls for HUPD abolition. Two police officers told The Crimson that one of the HUPD officers who monitored Tuesday’s protest was detective Thomas F. Karns, who was the subject of an internal HUPD investigation after having a physical altercation with a black officer whom he allegedly called racist and homophobic slurs.

The coalition’s letter also asks that Harvard increase the diversity of available campus mental health services to match the diversity of the student body, form a reporting system for racial discrimination and harassment before students return to campus, and invest in research to end legacies of racism and inequality in the United States.

“In addition to upholding its previous commitment to the Harvard Legacy of Slavery initiative, we want Harvard to recognize, financially support, and amplify the efforts of those who are already doing this work and establish fellowships to attract the next generation of graduate student and postdoc scholars to work on this critical research across a myriad of disciplines,” the letter reads.

The coalition also wrote in the letter that Harvard must hold the faculty search committees accountable to increase the hiring of more black faculty as well as faculty from underrepresented groups.

“The University should establish faculty mentoring to ensure progress to tenure and address the additional burden that faculty of color carry,” the letter reads.

The letter also asked that all of Harvard’s schools and departments to institute diversity training for students, faculty, and staff, as well as maintain an Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

The letter calls on Harvard to expand financial support for offices at Harvard committed to advancing diversity, inclusion, and belonging.

In his response, Bacow wrote that Harvard’s leadership will discuss the letter next week and how they will “align and mobilize the vast intellectual and other resources” to expedite reforms.

Bacow has asked the Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging to accelerate the release of a “preliminary Strategic Implementation Plan, which recommends work in several of the areas you’ve suggested, for community-wide consideration and input.” He wrote that he will respond to their letter more fully by the end of next week.

“Please know that I am your partner in the critical work of addressing structural racism and denouncing white supremacy,” Bacow wrote. “Now is the time to listen to those who are hurting and to support members of our community who face indignities every day.”

Bacow concluded his letter to the coalition by stressing that he will use his position to “speak for those who are too often silenced.”

“Black lives matter—and I am listening. My leadership of a university that is recognized around the world as a force for knowledge, truth, and wisdom gives me a platform to speak for those who are too often silenced,” he wrote. “I intend to use it, and I look forward having meaningful discussions with you about Harvard’s role in healing our fractured nation.”

—Staff writer Michelle G. Kurilla can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @MichelleKurilla.

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