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The Undergraduate Council circulated a petition on June 15 urging Harvard administrators to build a new multicultural center to house the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations.
While student demands for a multicultural center span decades, the recent murder of George Floyd at the hands of police and nationwide protests supporting the Black Lives Matter movement catalyzed the petition, Undergraduate Council President James A. Mathew ’21 said in an interview.
“When you see a situation like this nationally, you think about a microcosm that is on campus, and the way that students need supportive, inclusive spaces — particularly underrepresented students, students of color,” Mathew said.
The UC petition, which currently has roughly 360 signatures, drew upon a report released by the College’s working group on Symbols and Spaces of Engagement in February 2020. “Rethinking the Harvard Foundation,” one of four subcommittees within the working group, listed the transformation of the Foundation’s existing offices among three other recommendations aimed at improving inclusion and belonging on campus.
Professor Ali S. A. Asani ’77, who chaired the subcommittee, said Harvard administrators have been insufficiently “proactive” about foregrounding diversity and inclusion at the College, citing the Foundation’s current location.
“Right now, you can walk by Thayer and you wouldn’t even know that there was the Harvard Foundation in the basement. It’s all hidden,” said Asani. “The spaces where these offices are need to be more prominent, more central. You highlight them, you at least care [about] signage that acknowledges they exist.”
College spokesperson Rachael Dane did not respond to a request for comment last Friday.
Matthew also said the Foundation’s location in the basement of Thayer Hall fails to reflect its mission statement to “improve relations among racial and ethnic groups within the University.”
“While this is supposed to be this institution on our campus to champion diversity and inclusion, you kind of see symbolically the priority that these issues are getting,” Mathew said. “It's kind of tucked away in a little basement corner that many people don't know about.”
Mathew said that, in past discussions, administrators have been apprehensive about calling the space a “multicultural center,” arguing the name would be “inherently exclusive” and perceived as usable only by a specific part of the student body.
“I think that there's a tendency to treat an initiative like this as very specific to certain communities or only applying to certain students, but in reality, the initiative is predicated on creating better inclusion and as a kind of heightened sense of belonging for all students, and that's, I think, a matter where the entire university is concerned,” Mathew said.
Still, James A. Bedford ’20, a member of another Symbols and Spaces subcommittee, said the petition marks just a “first step” toward building a more inclusive learning environment at the College.
“It needs to be much more than a multicultural center,” Bedford said. “It needs to be rethinking the work of the foundation, rethinking how we think about diversity peer education, how we think about the spaces, about the portraiture in our houses, about the requirements that we have around how people engage with diversity in the classroom both academically in social organizations, or just in day to day life.”
Asani also said Harvard must revise its approach to diversity and inclusion more broadly.
“You know, in light of everything that happened, you've got to think Harvard, and you've got to rethink what the values that Harvard stands for, and if it stands for diversity, inclusion, belonging,” Asani said. “This is what we stand for and these are the programs that we are instituting to enable that to happen. It would send a very loud message not only to the country, but to the world.”
After seeking additional signatures from incoming freshmen, Mathew said he plans to meet with administrators about the petition.
"It really is something that, you know, all students should prioritize. Even if they don’t feel like it's directly affecting them, it’s affecting a friend of theirs,” Mathew said. “I think that’s something that everyone should take really seriously.”
Harvard Foundation Senior Director Sheehan D. Scarborough ’07 wrote in an email that he would welcome future collaboration with the Undergraduate Council.
“I'm eager to engage with the UC's leadership as we consider the Foundation's important and ongoing role in the life of our community,” Scarborough wrote. “I will be reviewing our mission and purpose alongside students, staff, and our Faculty Advisory Committee. I'm hopeful that the UC will want to be a part of this process.”
—Staff writer Jessica Lee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Christina T. Pham can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Christina_TPham.
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