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The Coalition for a Diverse Harvard is calling on the University to change the name of the Board of Overseers, Harvard’s second-highest governing body, because the term “overseer” historically referred to men hired by plantation owners to violently control slaves.
The board of the Coalition for a Diverse Harvard, an activist group that supports “diversity, equity, and inclusion” at the University, started lobbying individual Overseers to change the name in 2017, according to Jane Sujen Bock, a board member of the Coalition.
Bock wrote in an email that this year, the Coalition asked all 13 Overseers candidates about the name change.
All five of the Overseer candidates the Coalition endorsed — David H. Eun ’89, Diego A. Rodriguez, Tracy K. Smith ’94, Raphael W. Bostic ’87, and Dorothy L. “Thea” Sebastian ’08 — supported the name change, per Bock.
“Many of the 13 Overseer candidates we interviewed had not previously considered the ramifications of the title's link to slavery,” Bock wrote. “However, all five of the Overseers that we endorsed have spoken eloquently about why the title, with its overt connection to an unconscionable institution, should be changed.”
Bock said nationwide anti-racism protests spurred a greater push to change the name of the Board of Overseers.
“Even in the few months since we conducted those interviews, there is increasing urgency to rename the Overseers as the Black Lives Matters movement has brought critical attention to the need for institutions to remove markers of slavery,” she wrote. “Now is the moment for Harvard to rename the Overseers in practice and then seek any charter change needed from the Massachusetts Legislature.”
University spokesperson Christopher A. Hennessy declined to comment on the effort.
This is not the first time the University has encountered pressure to change the name of a position or organization due to its affiliations with slavery. The term “House Master” was replaced with “Faculty Dean” in 2016; Harvard affiliates have also petitioned to change the name of Mather House due to its slaveholding namesake.
In June, the University of Louisville removed the term “Overseers” from its governing board and Honors House as part of its response to the ongoing racial justice movement.
Harvard Forward, a student and alumni group working to bring attention to climate change and recent alumni representation within Harvard’s governance boards, said they found the term “Overseers” to be “problematic” in a Wednesday Instagram post.
“The term ‘Overseer’ cannot be separated from its historical context and connotations. The continued use of a word characterized by such deep-rooted racism is a testament to Harvard’s failure to confront our country’s history,” they wrote.
Margaret “Midge” Purce ’17, one of the candidates running under the Harvard Forward platform, said she believes the name should change.
“I understand what they were trying to do with it,” Purce said. “I think it’s tone deaf, and I think that especially now, it really resonates with people who think symbols and names matter, because they do.”
Jayson U. Toweh, another candidate, said the name itself is “older and antiquated,” tied to discriminatory practices in the past.
“I’m supportive of changing and updating it to something that is more appropriate in the modern context,” Toweh said.
Overseer candidate John E. Beatty ’11 agreed that it was hard to “divorce” the term “overseer” from its context within American slavery. He said that a renaming would help further clarify the role of the Board.
“We need to make a change,” he said. “I normally have to describe it as the alumni trustee board ... ‘The Board of Overseers’ is a bit of a relic around Harvard history and linguistics.”
—Staff writer Ellen M. Burstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ellenburstein.
—Staff writer Michelle G. Kurilla can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @MichelleKurilla.
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