By Meera S. Nair

Under Review Episode II: A Strange House

In Episode 2 of Under Review, hosts Matteo Wong and Olivia Oldham rewind 40 years to the story of the 1980 report, “A Study of Race Relations at Harvard College,” and ask why it seems to have been forgotten in recent University climate survey efforts.
By Olivia G. Oldham and Matteo N. Wong

In Episode 2 of Under Review, hosts Matteo Wong and Olivia Oldham rewind 40 years to the story of the 1980 report, “A Study of Race Relations at Harvard College,” and ask why it seems to have been forgotten in recent University climate survey efforts. Listen and subscribe on Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.


OGO: Last time, on Under Review:

Visitas protest: Black Lives Matter, at Harvard, too.

Cornell W. Brooks: You have 18,000 police departments, of which Harvard is but one.

Carter Nakamoto: I don't think any of the council members knew that like this was literally one of the recommendations in the 2018 report

Sylvester Monroe: even after three and a half years at Harvard, I still find it extremely difficult, even impossible to think of myself as a Harvard man, quote-unquote. Instead, I feel more like a guest in a strange house where my welcome is all but run out. I am nearing the end of a four year visit during which I have never felt at home...

OGO: If we told you that a Black student at Harvard said this today, you might not be completely taken aback. Only this summer, HUPD officers were seen policing a BLM protest; only seven years ago the “I, Too, Am Harvard” campaign and performance, based on interviews with Black Harvard students, brought national attention to the pervasive racism at this institution:

Speaker from “I, Too, Am Harvard”: It was the first time in a long time I had felt the burden of being Black in the classroom, and being Black walking around Harvard’s campus [...] So I go to harvard, I’m not really of harvard, I don’t feel like a typical Harvard student. And it took a while and it took a lot of experiences to prove that, I, too am Harvard.

OGO: But, in fact, the first quote was from an essay published in 1973 and read aloud by its author, Sylvester Monroe ’73, who has since had an extremely successful career as a journalist.

Monroe: The problem is that the traditional Harvard just isn't my Harvard, the Harvard of my experience has been three years of a totally Black existence. Black roommates, Black friends, Black dining hall tables, Black dances, Black student organizations, Black building takeovers, Black Studies, and Black ideology, all isolated within the confines of an otherwise white University.

OGO: Monroe’s essay, “Guests in a Strange House,” is about this totally Black existence. Although parts of it echo to the present, Harvard was also a very different, and far less diverse, campus in the 1970s. Prior to 1970, Harvard had admitted fewer than 100 Black students. In 1977, Black students made up about 7 percent of undergraduates, and total minority enrollment was 14 percent. The first co-ed graduation ceremony between Harvard and Radcliffe was held in 1970, and Harvard Yard only opened to female residents in 1972. Monroe wrote,

Monroe: Beginning in the mid 60s, Harvard and a steadily growing group of Black students began feeling their way through a totally new experience, kind of great experiment in which a handful of confused and frightened Black kids found themselves charged with the mental task of developing better racial relations with a scared and uncertain white college community.

OGO: In this evolving Harvard, with a Black student population the institution could no longer ignore, the Dean of Students Archie Epps, one of the first Black administrators at Harvard, put together a committee to review race relations at the College. The committee had dozens of students and administrators that worked for multiple years, analyzing data from over 1000 survey responses and numerous community conversations. They published their findings in a 138-page report, “A Study of Race Relations at Harvard College,” in May of 1980. I’m Olivia Oldham,

MNW: And I’m Matteo Wong.

OGO: You’re listening to Under Review, a podcast from The Crimson’s weekly magazine, Fifteen Minutes, in which we explore the way Harvard most often seems to deal with race and raciMonroe: a diversity review. In this episode, we’re rewinding to the beginning of Harvard’s reckoning with race, racism, and race relations — back to one of its first diversity reviews — and putting those formative years in conversation with the present.

MNW: I stumbled across the 1980 study of race relations while reporting another piece on Asian American activism at Harvard. At the same time I was writing that piece, spring of 2019, I started noticing these flyers in all of the dining halls and public spaces about some “pulse” survey. Those signs read, “10 questions, 3 minutes, your voice.” It seemed like a quick survey asking questions about inclusivity at Harvard, pretty typical stuff. I didn’t pay it much attention. So I was shocked, when, the following fall, Harvard published the pulse survey results and declared that “in the spring of 2019, for the first time in its history, Harvard asked everyone in its community to share perceptions about inclusion and belonging at Harvard in order to count the individual experiences of every single Harvard community member.”

MNW: The first time? Hadn’t Harvard done something quite similar, 40 years earlier? Wasn’t it sitting there in the archives, for anyone to see? Why does the 1980 study on race relations seem to have been forgotten — and what might it tell us about Harvard then, and how it’s evolved to the present day?

Florence Houn: I recall this image as statue of john Harvard sitting. And at his feet, was a caricature of a Black boy shining john Harvard's shoes

Sylvester Monroe: “Many of us were scared to death. And we've banded together for safety for, for, because we didn't know where else to turn to get it”

Adela Cepeda: Frankly, I wasn’t originally included… there was not a Latino voice there

Donald Barfield: we can't just stop at the study, you have to force people to say, ‘Okay, what are you going to do?’

Segment 1

MNW: The 1980 report, when I viewed it, was a slim booklet in the archives, Black ink on only slightly-yellowing white paper filled with charts, survey results, and paragraph upon paragraph of text in what I believe was Courier font. There were no adornments, colors, or images outside of numerous statistical graphs.

OGO: To understand this report, which is about the state of race relations at Harvard — and in particular between Black and white students, as the number of Asian, Latinx, Indigenous, and other students was very, very small — we have to understand more about Harvard at the time, more than just the most visible protest movements or basic statistics. We need context — so I asked Monroe about what led him to write his essay:

Monroe: my existence at Harvard, after that freshman, and during much of that freshman year, and afterwards was almost a completely Black existence, except for the classes that I took, and the interactions that I had with teachers and professors. And part of that was just the climate at the time. It was a really radical and political time, they spring before Harvard had been through the strike, in which people demonstrated against the Vietnam War, and other issues. In my freshman year, the Harvard Afro took over University Hall, twice

Monroe: I mean, in some ways we were these privileged kids, even though all of us didn't come from privileged backgrounds. But once we got to Harvard, we certainly became privileged. These privileged kids looking for causes.

OGO: In his first year at Harvard, Monroe had been involved in large-scale activist causes. But after his freshman year, he began to notice the smaller issues that Black students around him faced in their daily lives at Harvard. He began to feel that Black students had been forgotten by the University.

Monroe: And when I, when that strongly started to dawn upon me was when one of my turn time jobs was tutoring in sophomore year, tutoring freshmen in expository writing, at the Bureau of study counsel, and I came across students, Black and white, who though they were at Harvard, could not, were terrorized at the thought of having to write a paper longer than one or two pages. Luckily for me, one of the ways I got through Harvard was writing papers. I was very good at it, and I liked to do it and I did very well. And so that job, but I came across these, what alarmed me was not so much the white students that needed help in writing. But I came across Black students who needed help in writing. And it suddenly dawned upon me that, you know, while we're out here protesting and some of the other things we protested was about was about how we felt like Harvard, we had been brought to Harvard and sort of abandoned, abandoned, and since they put people there with very little support for students. Once you got there, it was as if, okay, you've accepted Harvard, now you've made it, you're on your own.

Monroe: I began to question the all Black existence that I, that I was sort of leading at the University and thinking that, you know, my Black fellow classmates, some of them were fooling themselves, I thought, I thought if, you know, it's okay to put on this front for everybody else. But if you know you're having trouble writing, if you know you're having trouble in other kinds of ways and other subjects, then we're at Harvard. Where better to fix them, to take care of them? And so that's why I decided to write that piece. I caught hell. Yeah? for writing a piece from my, from many of my peers. [...]

Monroe: Looking back. I have been a journalist all my life. I mean, I was hired straight out of Harvard to be a correspondent in the Boston bureau of Newsweek. I can't think of, there are very few things I can think of that have withstood the test of time and that stand up and are as important as what I wrote in the Saturday review in 1973.

OGO: Monroe wrote ‘A Strange House’ after he had started to question his ‘all-Black existence’ at Harvard. But I wondered if he considered this existence to be one of self-preservation.

Monroe: It was absolutely created out of self preservation. It was not — it was viewed at the time by others as being anti-white, anti-University. It was an anti nothing. It was, I mentioned to you that we felt, some of us felt so, some of us were scared, although we, you know, I think I said in the piece, you know, like James Brown, talking loud and saying nothing. And, you know, we put on a good front. Many of us were scared to death. And we've banded together for safety for, for, because we didn't know where else to turn to get it. And, as I said, it was taken as a statement of anti Harvard, anti white, it really was anti nothing. It was pro us. And it was about protecting ourselves.

MNW: Hearing him describe that — invisibility to the white mainstream, of both Black students and the problems they faced — it makes sense that the committee to study race relations wrote in their 1980 report that they weren’t responding to a specific incident. Racism was in the water; in the air.

OGO: And on top of that there’s an outpouring of activism in the 60s and 70s, especially among nonwhite students, around apartheid divestment and affirmative action and African American studies and Third World liberation and more. The causes resonate, in many ways, with those of today: prison divestment, admissions lawsuit, ethnic studies, anti-policing.

MNW: Right — so if you were looking in the slightest, the problems were obvious and everywhere — just like today. Still, I can’t help thinking that one incident started this report, a controversial cover of the Lampoon, which is a well-known Harvard student humor magazine, from the spring of 1977. The study of race relations mentions this cover and a lot of its members recall it. Florence Houn, class of 1980, was very active in student activism as an undergraduate. She recalls putting an image of the cover in a press packet put out by the Third World students movement at Harvard in 1980:

Florence Houn: I remember going over the press packet with one of the members of the press. So, to me I recall this image as a statue of John Harvard sitting. And at his feet, was a caricature of a Black boy shining John Harvard's shoes. I believe that came out, maybe in 77 or 76. It was not 1980 when it came out, was a couple of years ago, was one of several incidents that we had put in the packet, including the, the, The Hasty Pudding production of a show that featured a character egg foo young. That was a Chinese racist character. And there were other incidents in the press packet but I remember those two vividly.

OGO: The list of racist incidents seems endless.

MNW: And so egregious. The Crimson itself, just before the Study of Race Relations was released, published an image rivaling the Lampoon in its awfulness. Donald Barfield, a graduate student who worked on the 1980 report, recalls a Village Voice article on this image in The Crimson:

Donald Barfield: “The bloody riot at the New Mexico State Penitentiary near Santa Fe, New Mexico is pretty far away from the Crimson office. And there was no way to get an appropriate photograph to go with the article. So [...] someone, and the conspiracy of silence would not reveal who, inserted a photo of two Harvard undergraduates, both Black, and drew vertical bars over their faces to simulate a prison door. Neither student was asked his permission.”

Segment 2

OGO: It’s the fall of 1977. Harvard is just starting to bring in significant numbers of nonwhite students. The racial atmosphere is hostile, yet at the same time that hostility is largely unacknowledged by the University’s white population.

MNW: Which is exactly what Barfield wanted to address with this report. He was a sociology student and proctor at the time, and he’s made a career of education and equity assessments. He felt Harvard in the 70s...

Barfield: wasn't necessarily overtly hostile. It was kind of, you were invisible to a certain degree. And then there's a level of insensitivity that, you know, came up with the National Lampoon publication, you know, that was in 77, I think.

MNW: Barfield and Dean Epps were the masterminds behind this study of race relations. It grew out of conversation between Epps, Barfield, and others at the College invested in supporting Black undergraduates. Epps brought together 10 undergrads and six faculty and administrators, all hoping to improve the Harvard experience for nonwhite students, and made the committee. Their charge was three-fold: first, to “review the pattern of interaction between white and nonwhite students,” second, to see how race affected the learning environment for students of color, and third, to suggest ways to improve things for minority students.

Barfield: This was so novel, you know, information gathering to try to kind of understand and be able to describe, with some reliability, you know, what was occurring, and what people were experiencing, and what they thought.

OGO: Crazy that trying to learn about the presence and negative effects of racism was “novel.”

MNW: Now, sure. But maybe not then — remember what Monroe said about this being a sort of experiment for the College and its growing Black undergraduate population. We can start to quantify this — how little a lot of Harvard’s white population thought about race and racism. The 1980 study of race relations found that Black students were twice as likely as white students to perceive racial prejudice existed among peers, and four times as likely to perceive racial prejudice from faculty. Yet at the same time, the overwhelming majority of white students thought promoting diversity was good. So white undergrads professed to support minorities, but had no idea what that entailed.

Barfield: we’d just come out of the late 60s, and all that turmoil. The university had, I think, embraced affirmative action to a degree, you know, in terms of at least the numbers. I would say that, you know, so you had a steady increase in minority student presence at the college. But my characterization would be, it was, the question was how you fit in. As opposed to how the, how you would ask today, when we talk about inclusion, how the group defines the culture that's present, as opposed to basically, you know, kind of fitting into a privileged culture. And I think that, more or less, it was more, more aggregate, aggregative versus integrative, you know. So, you know, basically say, what, how many Blacks you have, Hispanics, Asians, how many social clubs you have, you get to counting numbers, but they're not in any way particularly integrated.

OGO: He’s saying, it sounds like, that Harvard had begun to show an investment in bringing Black and other nonwhite students to campus, but wasn’t really invested in their success once they had arrived. It’s not so far off from Monroe’s awakening at the Bureau of Study Counsel.

MNW: It’s a dead ringer for Monroe’s awakening. Barfield reasoned that to tackle this dual problem of racism and its invisibility, first you had to understand the issues, and then convince those in power — almost entirely older white men — that the problem needed their attention. The committee worked for over two years. They brought in outside experts who studied race relations, had several open community dialogues, and spent several months developing a 251-question survey with variations for white and nonwhite students.

Barfield: We wanted to try to get as deep an understanding of the experience, you know, of all the students really. So that we could kind of understand, compare and contrast

MNW: They asked questions like, rate from one to five how much you agree with the statement “Minority students are stereotyped by white students as all being generally the same” or yes/no, “do you think that you are treated differently because you are a minority by nonminority students? Or faculty?” and so on. They got 1300 responses, and the data analysis alone took almost a year. It was a mammoth effort, for a mammoth cause.

OGO: So there were 16 people on the committee. Other than Barfield and Epps, who else?

MNW: They tried to represent as many perspectives as possible. There were, using the report’s categories, 3 Black, 2 white, 3 hispanic, 1 asian american, and one Native American student. I spoke with Adela Cepeda, class of 1980, who asked to be on because she felt there were not enough Latinx voices.

Cepeda: Frankly, I wasn't originally included. There was no, as far as I can recall, there was not a Latino voice there. And when they came out with the announcement about it, I felt like we should be a part of this. And I went to see Dean Epps saying that, you know, I, I believed in the importance of this, and I wanted to be a part of it. They had already picked the group. So he asked me if I could be the secretary for the, for the committee. And I accepted, because I would be present at all the meetings and I could participate.

OGO: The fact that she had to be their secretary in order to contribute — that’s absurd. It’s like she had to pay them with this very gendered labor in order to have her voice heard — she’s doing them a favor. You’d think they would have paid her.

MNW: And in the end, only an additional two Latinx students participated. Part of this also is that Asian Americans were 4% of harvard, Latin Americans 3%, and Indigenous people 0.3%. So representation was a problem writ-large, not just for the committee. I also spoke with Jake Liang, class of 1980, who was a leader in the Asian American Association at the time. Dean Epps brought him on as an Asian American voice. Liang said he didn’t feel like a key voice in the group because in the context of the Civil Rights Movement, the issue of race relations was more relevant to the Black community

Jake Liang: at least the Asian American community were not the driving force behind this, but we were very happy to be involved and you know, pleased that they did involve us [...] we kind of felt we were just sort of there to weigh in, contribute, but we didn't really have any more problem that we faced that we wanted addressed for our community

MNW: It’s important to note, of course, that at the same time that Jake did not perceive acute anti-Asian racism, there’s someone like Florence, also a leader in Harvard’s Asian American community, at the exact same time, but she was hyper aware of racism and super active in the Third World liberation front, a pretty radical movement.

Houn: when I thought back to 40 years ago, and I saw all the demonstrations, you know, across the nation for Black Lives Matter, social justice, ending police brutality. It was the same kind of feeling of people wanting things to be better working together, and very diverse people.

MNW: So you have Jake being asked to represent the perspective of all Asian Americans at Harvard, but the difference between his and Flo’s politics shows he couldn’t do that — nobody could, just as no one or three people could represent all Hispanic or Black or Indigenous students. Each group contains diverse ethnicities, beliefs, class backgrounds, life experiences. So asking individuals to stand in for constructed demographics seems a little absurd. Not only is Asian or Hispanic super diverse, but they actually lumped hispanic and native american students together and provided no explanation. There were only 7 Native American respondents, so any statistical analyses there may not have been useful. It all makes me wonder when race-based statistical categories are or aren’t meaningful, especially when you start trying to apply them to qualitative questions, like Barfield wanted the committee to do.

OGO: I mean, of course the committee couldn’t represent every single perspective. And it seems like these students were tokenized, to some extent. But we could be more charitable — how else were they supposed to construct the committee? How else were they to efficiently collect data? It seems like including these students using those categories was well-intentioned, if not perfectly executed — like, in doing the first study of race relations, they at least tried to have as diverse a set of voices at the table as possible.

MNW: And that might be more generally indicative of this 1980 study — well-intentioned but sometimes falling short. Today we’d say you can’t understand race relations without digging into gender, class, and so many more factors. We might say statistical analyses like this one, and its categories, are imperfect, and that the qualitative community conversations and statistical survey data, which the 1980 study kept almost totally separate, need to be better integrated. But the committee worked with what they had. Each member was talented and committed. One of their two expert consultants, Thomas Pettigrew, a professor of race relations, remembered very little, but his general impression of the committee stood out strongly:

Thomas Pettigrew: I found them well-meaning, but incredibly naive. they were all great in their specialties, whatever it was, but they were quite naive about American race relations

Segment 3

OGO: So two years, many voices, many conversations, 1300 survey responses later. What came of all this?

MNW: I asked Barfield exactly that question — what were the results? What stood out?

Barfield: No, I can't say any, any surprises [...] I was a tutor, you know, I'd be, I was interacting with undergraduates all the time. You know, and so it's, you know, and and therefore I had a very clear understanding of maybe where they were coming from

OGO: Two years and nothing? What was this “it” that didn’t surprise him?

MNW: Well, the final report had a lot of findings, but most are obvious — they did an in-depth statistical analysis, cross-referencing eight metrics to prove that racism was not caused by one group of really racist people, but institutional. They found white students were less likely to perceive racism than nonwhite students. Etcetera.

OGO: I guess that goes back to the “novelty” that Barfield mentioned, that these obvious results were still important because many had never thought about these issues before.

MNW: Definitely. But for us, what might be interesting are findings on student attitudes about affirmative action. The Court had just ruled in 1978 in the landmark California v. Bakke case against racial quotas but approved using race in holistic admissions, explicitly praising Harvard’s process.

Barfield: you had affirmative action issues being raised. Bakke was settled in 78, as well. So it was an interesting time. And so, the whole issue of questioning, was very present at the institution, was a really big deal. “You shouldn't be there, do you belong?” you know, and affirmative action policies, or the specter of it, or how people thought of it — really, really kind of created a challenge in terms of being welcomed into the community and questioned about your right to belong. So a common experience that many undergraduates had would be people asking them, What was their SAT score?

MNW: So the committee was probing this question of, do affirmative action policies create doubts about the academic abilities of nonwhite students? In Barfield’s experience the answer was yes, and the report confirmed it — about two-thirds of Black, Hispanic, and Native American respondents thought such doubts existed in general.

OGO: That’s a huge condemnation of Harvard’s atmosphere at the time — that so many students of color perceived that kind of terrible, untrue stigma. Unfortunately, this diversity-meritocracy binary is something we hear to this day.

MNW: It’s this terrible double bind because first defenders of affirmative action have to combat this false binary in the fight against Ed Blum and Students for Fair Admissions’ lawsuit, which alleges affirmative action at Harvard benefits Black and other minorities while discriminating against Asian American applicants. The suit has been criticized for attacking Black and brown students and pitting minorities against one another. Here’s a clip from a 2018 rally critical of Blum and SFFA

Defend Diversity Rally: Blum wants to divide us to achieve his end game goal, which is to limit opportunity and to whitewash history and systemic institutionalized racism. And by doing so, he is harming white students, all students, by ignoring the benefits that students glean from a diverse learning environment.

MNW: And then, even if affirmative action is defended in the legal arena, students of color continue to suffer from others having unfounded doubts about their academic abilities, as was expressed in the I, too, am Harvard campaign

Jazmyne Reid in “I, too, am harvard”: when they start having these affirmative action debates, I’m like, you are coming for my life! I am not a policy, I am not a relief method, I am me. And only I know how hard I worked to get here [applause]

OGO: And all these doubts and microaggressions students still face show that letting more diverse people in doesn’t mean you’re doing a good job welcoming them, hence all these doubts about self-belonging. Who is in the University doesn’t change what the University is, if that makes sense. Which is also similar to a lot of students’ reactions to the current Students for Fair Admissions lawsuit. A lot of our classmates at once support affirmative action — they want more students of color — but are critical of how Harvard fails to welcome or support these students of color and might have very image-focused intentions in bringing them to campus.

Defend diversity rally: We know we belong here. We know we are worthy of this space. And we know that every time we walk across this campus, we are doing work for this school.

OGO: I guess the follow-up question about the report’s findings in 1980 is, did these perceptions cause nonwhite students to oppose affirmative action?

MNW: Not at all. Minority, and especially Black, students were way more likely than whites to support special considerations for minorities in admissions to make up for historical inequity. Large majorities of white students agreed diversity was good, but at the same time nearly 60% of white students rejected quotas in admissions. Meanwhile, 83% of Black respondents agreed that minorities should receive special consideration to ensure higher than proportional representation compared to the general US population.

OGO: I know I just said numerical diversity isn’t the same as actual diversity, but that adamant support for aggressive affirmative action reminds me just how few minorities there were then. Like, the struggle for diversity is still really important, but it may have seemed even more pressing then. Recruitment was a huge issue, going to marginalized communities and just getting people in the door. We talked John Anthony Butler, class of 1980, for instance, who was a leader in the Black Students Association and a dedicated activist,

John A. Butler: Most of my time was conscious about, okay, how do we continue to grow our pipeline and grow the potential numbers of people who are at Harvard. So affirmative action was an issue, I mean, I did in 1978, you know, with another schoolmate, upperclassman and me, we went, we’d go to Washington, DC to participate in so called, you know, demonstrations in front of the Supreme Court, to to, to challenge the so-called Bakke decision

OGO: Which is crazy because today progressives are fighting to save Bakke and considering race at all in admissions, and back then he was opposing it because Bakke, which allowed the use of race in holistic admissions but overturned race-based admissions quotas, wasn’t progressive enough. The very possibility is out of the question today. And, of course, race-based admissions were in Black-and-white terms then.

MNW: Whereas now, Asian Americans are the face of the harvard affirmative action lawsuit. It’s pretty fascinating to look at the report’s findings with regards to Asian students — they don’t differentiate American and international students. You’re right that the report is in a Black-white binary in part because that was the central issue a decade after the civil rights movement and the summer of 68, and in part because numerically they just couldn’t say much about non-Black minorities. But what they do say about Asian Americans is pretty fascinating. Part of their final conclusions is that, to quote, “most Asians had perceptions similar to those of white students, in that they were fairly satisfied and secure, saw relatively little prejudice, believed that present admissions and financial aid policies were fair.” And this is a statement born out in their statistics: most Asian american respondents opposed quotas, were less likely to perceive racism at Harvard, were less likely to join protests than other nonwhite students, and so on. The report is peppered with these statements placing Asians as nearly white in their attitudes, as not having a lot of racial grievances, kind of similar to what Jake was expressing:

Liang: I think what the contribution would be, really for us to, to really, try to showcase that, that we as an Asian American community, being brought into the Harvard community, have contributed substantially to various different aspects. And, you know, again that was all under the sort of the premise of a sort of model minority because that's kind of what was said then, and none of this really kind of bucked the trend substantially, because we didn't really know any better.

OGO: I’ve heard the term before — the model minority — but could we get a reminder about what he’s referring to?

MNW: The model minority is a stereotype about Asian Americans that basically says Asian Americans are the most successful minority group because they work hard, don’t complain, and can adopt American values. It’s an immigrant bootstraps narrative saying Asian Americans have “earned” their place in the meritocracy.

OGO: Jake sounded almost guilty for acting under, “the premise of a sort of model minority”

MNW: He did, and he kept expressing similar remorse throughout our interview. I think that’s because the model minority stereotype is a myth — basically new immigration laws in 1965 led to an influx of skilled immigrants from Asia who the U.S. then claimed as evidence of succeeding within America, even though they had all been educated in their country of origin — and that myth was weaponized to racist ends to attack the civil rights movement by arguing if Asian Americans have succeeded as model minorities, then Black people are “problem” minorities.

OGO: It seems like for Jake, that as a student he attempted to prove that Asian Americans contributed positively to Harvard was like trying to prove how Asians contributed to and deserved their place in the US, which in retrospect maybe inadvertently propped up a model minority stereotype that has racist consequences.

MNW: Right. And the model minority myth also obscures that, and this is kind of obvious now, Asia is big and diverse, and a lot of Asian immigrants who aren’t from this educated class in their home country struggle in the U.S. But this is also complicated because we also have to recognize the ways in which, consciously and unconsciously, Asian Americans do benefit and sometimes buy into this myth, and even its harmful consequences of reinforcing hierarchies. A lot of Asian Americans support Blum’s lawsuit, for instance. This is a massively complex issue we could do an entire podcast on, and I’ll leave some links in the episode notes if anybody’s interested.

OGO: To bring us back to the 1980 report, it seems like what we’re seeing is how the Black-white framework of the committee, which was in many ways necessary because of sample size limitations and because the most pressing issues were Black-and-white, also created a very narrow understanding of race relations.

MNW: And we see that narrow view come up again in the report’s other key set of findings. The committee’s probing of attitudes toward affirmative action had to do with getting people in the door and how people valued diversity. So the obvious next set of questions was, what do and should diversity look like at Harvard? Th committee wanted to examine the quantity and quality of interracial interaction — once again interracial defined mostly as white and Black. The really big issue, at the time, was whether minorities self-segregate. Today that takes the form of rhetoric around the so-called Black Table.

Rodriguez Roberts in “I, Too, Am Harvard”: So I sat at the Black table in Annenberg...

MNW: That’s a clip from the 2014 “I, Too, Am Harvard” campaign. It’s a contentious issue to this day and there’s a huge spectrum of opinions, which I think reflects the huge spectrum of opinions on what “healthy race relations,” quote-unquote, look like.

OGO: Well, there was Monroe’s view, that Harvard was so strange and hostile he had little choice but to spend more time with other Black students that he felt most comfortable being himself around.

MNW: And to that end, in the 1980 report, 73% of Black students thought white students had not put equal effort into positive race relations, nearly double the number of white students who agreed with that statement. A majority of white students agreed that minorities tend to isolate themselves, whereas a majority of Black students disagreed with that. I could keep listing numbers, but the gist is, white students blamed minorities for self-segregating, while minorities thought “racial separatism” was a response to racism and lack of inclusivity on the part of a white institution.

Florence Houn: There were certain houses that, oh, you know that's, that's where African American students go. You know, that's where the preppies go, that's where the jocks go. I mean, so it's not just people of color factions, there are all these other factions, like finals clubs, like, that's where we don't go.

MNW: And we hear echoes of that in the 21st century, for instance in the I, Too, Am Harvard play:

Roberts: ... I think white people for the most part are scared of entering groups of all nonwhite people, but there’s no such thing as me being scared of entering a group of white people, because that’s the world

OGO: I was just thinking, if everyone on men’s heavyweight crew wore a neon yellow suit, you’d have a “men’s crew table” that would probably be bigger and more consistent than a “Black table.” But it’s fine for men’s crew to be super exclusive and tight-knit. There’s almost this expectation that Black or nonwhite students should single-handedly integrate the community, which is absurd given you could argue the segregation is happening the other way around.

Roberts: It’s freshman year, and that’s where my friends were sitting. It’s not like we were making a conscious discriminatory action, like I’m going to ignore white people at all costs this meal. Because for me at least, sitting with all Black people at the table is like coming home from a day at work. You don’t have to explain yourself

MNW: The term “integration” generally, I think, can put the burden on nonwhite students to make themselves palatable to a very white, very elite culture. Shouldn’t the onus be on the with, on Harvard to shift its core values to align with the needs and perspectives of students from disadvantaged backgrounds? Both Cepeda and Houn had a lot to say on supposed self segregating

Cepeda: When you think about it, you know, the class is 1600 students, right? And so what percent was Black? You know, 10%, something like that? Yeah. So that's 160 students. So really, if six or seven students are together, I mean, to me, that issue being raised really reflects that group, which is the other 1500 or 1400 students, they’re the ones that are together and segregating. We're trying not to be tokens. That's the reality. Because it's very uncomfortable to be a token, I remember we had a lot of conversations about this and achieving critical mass so that, so that it wouldn't seem segregated. It's very hard to achieve when you're such a small percentage of the total population

Houn: I just think that it's fine to have a chess club and a republican club and a democratic club, as well as, you know, an Asian women's organization. I think what we're all trying to do, whether it's our enjoyment of chess or advancing chess playing, or advancing Asian American women's confidence and knowledge and ability to mentor and learn more from each other.

MNW: There’s also this broader question of, what is integration? This gets back to the inadequacy of the very generalizing demographic categories and overall Black-and-white model not only of this report, but that we often use to discuss race in this country in general. Students like Cepeda, who is Colombian, were very aware of this shortcoming

Adela Cepeda: At the time, Harvard only characterized Chicano Mexican American students, they're called Chicano students, as minority Latino. people like me that were, Caribbean Latinos, I'm from Colombia, and, and I don't even know if they included Puerto Rican students in that category, maybe they did. The point was, when they had the orientation sessions for Hispanic students, I was not, I was not included in that. And I had to make my own way to students from that, those backgrounds, where I naturally fit. I mean, I spoke Spanish and our cultures are very similar. So I felt that the University didn't know how to even categorize us, at least on the Latino side. But there was a very nice network of Mexican American students, including my roommates. And I was very much a part of that. I came from a neighborhood in Long Island that was very mixed Black and Latino. And so I, you know, I was very glad to be a part of Black socializing events, or Black social events like that.

OGO: So diversity and multiculturalism, to use those awful words, take personal interactions and effort and people and, well, casting aside statistical categories. Speaking of statistics, was the committee able to quantify whether racial separatism actually existed?

MNW: The data varies, but the majority of students had had both white and nonwhite roommates, and most reported having the same number of white and nonwhite friends. I will say, the data’s self-reported, Harvard’s skewed demographics skew the data, and the report is limited to generic, white-nonwhite interactions, so it doesn’t tell us about what Florence or Adela described, all of the cross-cultural interactions within the nonwhite umbrella. It’s like interracial interaction is defined as expanding white people’s worldview, spicing up a bland white space. For me what stands out in these numbers is that a substantial proportion of students of color — 40% of Black students and one-third of Hispanic and Native American Students — said their perceptions of white people got worse after four years. Which makes sense given the cover of the Lampoon in 1977 or the Crimson in 1980.

OGO: I don’t mean to continue our tirade against statistics. But the report seems inconclusive on separatism, as you might expect. It tells us that there were interracial interactions, but people are also more comfortable around those they identify with. And that white people are less aware of their own racism. For some minorities, spending time at a PWI — a predominantly white institution — that doesn’t make much effort to include you, makes you cynical about said PWI and white people more generally. None of this is revelatory, which is exactly what Barfield said — as a tutor who interacted with undergrads all the time, none of the findings surprised him.

MNW: Right, which begs the question, why do all this?

Segment 4

MNW: The phrase that stuck out to me, talking to Barfield, was when he referred to the report as a “communication piece.”

Barfield: I think that the challenge really was representing it in a way that, you know, this had to be a communications piece that could work. And, and that was where we spent a tremendous amount of time working with Archie to kind of come up with the recommendations, how they were stated. And, and the idea was just to move the ball down the field, you know, nothing earth shattering, but at least to make the community more aware, and that it's something that could be worked on and can be managed

OGO: It’s like they went through the motions of this massive fact-finding effort, but it was all just to prove a point, not to really learn? I guess without statistical groups, it’s hard to make a claim to administrators, to make your knowledge seem valid. So students’ knowledge about racism and segregation at Harvard, which Monroe had publicized many years earlier, that’s not deemed legitimate. The report on the other hand, in the language of sociology and stats, might have been? But also Barfield said they did really want to learn about this problem in detail. So it’s a little bit of both.

MNW: Yeah, I mean the way I understand it is, the report confirmed everything that a Black person, like Barfield, already knew about Harvard, and added granular detail. But it spoke in an official language, that of science. Better than testimony and feelings.

OGO: That’s sarcasm, listener!

MNW: Yes, obviously.

OGO: So if this report was a communications document, what, in their conclusions, did it communicate? What did they recommend?

MNW: Nothing that surprising. They voice strong support for affirmative action, diverse faculty hiring, modifying language in the student handbook, making a more supportive environment for minorities, things like that in very general terms. I talked to William Mayer ’80, the Gov. concentrator brought on to do the statistical analysis, and he wasn’t sure the recommendations even had any relationship to the survey data.

William Mayer: people decide to do surveys, because they think it seems intellectually respectable. But it's not clear what they actually learn from these things that's helpful to what they're trying to do. And I, to some extent, felt that way about this particular survey. It wasn't clear to me what all you learn from it that that had any relationship to the the recommendations of the of the, of the Commission

MNW: I will say, one maybe unexpected recommendation was to add a course on race relations to the core curriculum.

OGO: Woah! That would be considered almost radical even today. Quantitative Reasoning with Data, Civics and Ethics, Aesthetics and Culture, and Race Relations. What would such a course look like?

MNW: Well, the 1980 report recommended the course not be required but just strongly recommended, and that the course would aim to help students understand and think about racial issues. Nothing more substantive than that.

OGO: So, then, were the communications successful?

MNW: Well, they definitely generated a lot of buzz.

Barfield: You know, it got good newspaper coverage, in the Times and the Post.

MNW: Mostly the articles covered that there are problems at Harvard. Although, Peter Skerry of the conservative Commentary Magazine had a go at it, using the report to lambast affirmative action. But outside of that I don’t think it directly led to substantive changes. Harvard kept recruiting minorities, diversifying, things like that, but that was all happening anyway. And it was painfully slow, as we know to this day.

Barfield: stepping back and looking at it, I mean, there wasn't — I mean Derek Bok was the president at the time and, and Rosovsky didn't look at the report, really. It was, you know, he claims he had the chance to look at it. I can't say there was real top down leadership.

MNW: Henry Rosovsky was Dean of FAS at the time. He did not respond to requests for comment. But also, Barfield left Harvard for California, so he’s not totally sure what came of it. It is worth noting that Bok read the report and discussed race relations at length in his commencement speech that year, in which he likely was referencing this report. Mayer recalls,

Mayer: I believe the next year after this report came out, he delivered a talk about that report. So he clearly read it took it seriously

MNW: Bok would go on to mention race relations in open letters to Harvard and support the creation of the Foundation on Intercultural Relations in 1981. So we can’t say if the report by itself pushed Harvard leadership to take race relations seriously, but there was some effect, for sure.

OGO: Can we say anything more specific than that? Actually, looking at these recommendations in the report, they’re so vague I don’t know if we could quantify progress or implementation…

MNW: I struggled with that, too. Some of the recommendations are just, promote racial integration, or keep hiring faculty of color. And those happened, but it’s impossible to say if it was the result of this report.

Mayer: if you were an academic, I think it provided some interesting data. I just wasn't sure to what extent it actually helped improve race relations on campus

OGO: Well, we know there was no race relations requirement added. Scanning the list, many of the other recommendations were more studies, and none of those happened, or if they did they aren’t public. The only thing that directly happened, it seems, was adding language explaining a new procedure for reporting discrimination in the student handbook. Which is funny because 40 years later a lot of people have complained about Harvard lacking racial grievance procedures.

Houn: I do recall the report coming out, and I think the feeling was that nothing was going to happen, other than the issue was going to be Harvardized, meaning making it an academic, an academic topic or issue that could be further studied and discussed

OGO: I love that verb — to “Harvardize” an issue, to designate it for further study. It seems to describe some of what’s been going on recently, too, especially with the PULSE survey. Although, this 1980 report strikes me as quite different from PULSE.

MNW: Yeah, do you want to tell me more about those differences?

OGO: Well, PULSE was this 10-question online survey they asked undergrads, graduate students, staff, and faculty to fill out a couple of years ago. Respondents were asked to fill out to what extent they agreed with statements like, “I feel like I belong at Harvard” or “I believe Harvard leadership will take appropriate action in response to incidents of harassment and discrimination.” Then they broke down the answers by race, gender, political ideology, and so on.

MNW: Compared to a 251-question survey, it feels a little skimpy. I actually asked Barfield about the PULSE survey, since educational assessment with stats is his job.

Barfield: It's worth only three minutes worth of anybody's time, as far as I'm concerned, you know. The rankings of each group would be exactly what I would expect to see,

OGO: That’s, well, direct. But yeah — you see much lower numbers of belonging among Black and Middle Eastern students relative to white student, among gender nonconforming than cis people, among Muslim students compared to any other religion. Which is all good to quantify, except we kind of knew this already — it’s not that surprising. And so I agree in the sense that it’s hard to see how such a general survey can really quote “help inform priorities, practices, and policies in the months and years to come,” as Harvard wrote in its announcement.

MNW: Barfield basically thought PULSE was paltry compared to his study. The 1980 report had hyper-specific questions and scenarios. Instead of ‘do you feel like you belong,’ they asked specifically about belonging in terms of political beliefs, social class, educational background, career goals, and more. They differentiated about perceptions of faculty, staff, other students, TFs, and so on. A Harvard spokesperson declined to comment on the PULSE survey.

OGO: Maybe there’s a more generous view of Pulse? I’m thinking of how both Barfield and Mayer said the 1980 report, even though it was thorough in its analysis, didn’t arrive at anything novel and the super specific statistics weren’t really used to make any recommendations. But Barfield seemed okay with that shortcoming because the report raised awareness and was a, what he called, a communications document. Maybe PULSE is also a communications document?

MNW: That’s the only way Barfield was able to rationalize it.

Barfield: I think that, overall, it's, it's inclusive enough to make people, to help people understand that they are part of a larger effort. And I think that if I were strategizing, that's the way I would approach it, and, you know, begin there.

OGO: The only thing is, it’s not the beginning! It’s like the third report in a chain that started in 2014 — which we’ll talk about in another episode. But my point being, what is pulse communicating that hasn’t already been communicated?

MNW: Well, Barfield had a somewhat interesting take on that — while we’re pointing out that these diversity reviews repeat themselves, he sees that repetition as necessary and a sign of renewed commitment to helping people of color. And we might note that the 1980 study claimed not to be a response to anything, but it kind of reacted to that Lampoon cartoon and was led by students and administrators already concerned with race relations. Whereas PULSE came top-down from the highest echelons of Harvard leadership and the labor did not fall primarily on students of color. So even if Pulse seemed less than effective to Barfield, it also heartened him.

Barfield: I do believe in committees repeating themselves, because we don't solve the problem in one year, we don't solve the problem in two years, you know. So there needs to be a continued commitment to trying to solve the problem. I can define the committee work like that [...] the next step really is turning the corner to action. And as long as the initiative has actionable components, then then you have some accountability, then you have something to measure in terms of a change. And, and so yeah, you do need an evaluation, you will have the initiative because the initiative without an evaluation without clear markers towards progress is, you know, navel gazing, right? You don't want to have people just kind of meet to meet. But, but again, I really do believe that if they're not meeting, then it goes away.

OGO: Huh, okay. In some ways that’s even more troubling, because if the reports are supposed to keep the university accountable for improving, but the university neglects the reports that already exist, i.e. the 1980 study not being mentioned in the pulse survey, then we just spend all our time fact-finding and don’t turn the corner.

OGO: I will note that the meaning of diversity and belonging are quite different today than in 1980. That report focused only on race, and only among undergrads. PULSE surveys a lot of identity categories, among students, faculty, and staff. So they are different — it’s not a lie to say PULSE is the first of its kind.

MNW: Yeah, but I don’t know if it’s the truth, either. Clearly, in 1980, a group of well-meaning Harvard community members came together to understand race relations at the College. They found that Black and other minority students perceive the problem, but white students often don’t. They found that minorities perceive much more prejudice. They found mistrust in administration to deal with instances of discrimination. PULSE repeated all of those findings. Maybe if the 1980 report hadn’t been forgotten, we’d be looking at some very different statistics right now.

Houn: for me to say something 40 years old, that is resonant today shows you the amount of progress that has been made. Because, you know, I was very — when that report came out, I knew I was ready to leave Harvard, and I did not want to improve the lives of people at Harvard. That was not a goal in life, because it was not going to achieve anything concrete.

Segment 5

MNW: So we leave off asking ourselves, why does so much repeat itself at Harvard, why is there so much institutional amnesia — especially around the ubiquitous diversity review? Not to be glib, but this has all happened before, and…

OGO: Wait, wait. Think about this: In 1979, 15% of Harvard College was nonwhite. Now, the majority of the College is nonwhite. In 1979, financial aid was tiny. Since 2004, Harvard has guaranteed no student loans. There have been changes, dare I say improvements.

MNW: Okay, but affirmative action debates rage on, they had apartheid divestment and we have prisons, racist incidents still happen, it seems, every few months.

OGO: Right, I’m just saying the context is super different for these events, and in some ways so is the response. Let’s not dehistoricize. We looked at one of the first Harvard diversity reviews. We compared it to the PULSE survey from the present. But we need to go even bigger — PULSE was a recommendation from the 2018 Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging, a major effort, much bigger than the 1980 study, whose report has led Harvard’s policy on diversity and inclusion for the past 3 years. Next time, on Under Review…

Frances Frei: If they are used, because we're like, really time sensitive and because we want to, like learn from diverse perspectives, great. task forces that are, oh, we have a problem, let's put a taskforce and, lets just postpone the problem for like a year or two years.

Dorothy Villarreal: We were very weary of making big changes, because Harvard is a big lumbering institution, where, you know, one small flutter of a butterfly wing really can create a whole Cyclone

Daryl Smith: Too many reports will say things like we urge deans and department chairs. We are long past the urging. People are too busy. If this is optional, we’ve got too much on our plate.

MNW: Under Review is a podcast from the Crimson’s weekly magazine, Fifteen Minutes. It is produced by Zing Gee and Thomas Maisonneuve. Music by Ian Chan and art by Meera Nair. Also huge thank you to James Bikales and Josie Abugov for their editing, and Andrew Aoyama for help with the archives.

Additional Resources

Further Reading on the Model Minority Myth:

“‘Model Minority’ Myth Again Used As A Racial Wedge Between Asians And Blacks,” 4/19/2017, by Kat Chow on NPR’s Code Switch,

The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority by Ellen D. Wu

For Asian American history that goes beyond the model minority myth, The Making of Asian America: A History by Erika Lee.

Further reading on SFFA:

“Where Does Affirmative Action Leave Asian-Americans?”, 8/28/2019, Jay Caspian Kang,

“The Uncomfortable Truth About Affirmative Action and Asian-Americans,” 8/10/2017, Jeannie Suk Gersen,

“The Harvard Admissions Lawsuit, Explained,” 11/7/2016, Brittany N. Ellis,

“The Harvard Admissions Lawsuit Decision, Analyzed,” 10/3/2019, Camille G. Caldera and Delano R. Franklin,

“How SFFA Is Trying to Convince SCOTUS To Hear Its Suit Against Harvard,” 3/5/2021, Vivi E. Lu and Dekyi T. Tsotsong,

About Under Review:

How can Harvard, an institution with so much history, have so little memory?

The racial reckonings and Black Lives Matter protests that swept the country this past summer brought attention to a trend in how Harvard seems to deal with student activism and concerns surrounding race, racism, and diversity: to commission a diversity review. These committees and reports long predate this summer, and reading them it can seem, at times, like some things have not changed at the University — in race relations, Harvard’s review process, or the findings and recommendations. What can these diversity reviews accomplish, and what can’t they?

“Under Review” is a podcast from The Harvard Crimson, hosted by Matteo Wong and Olivia Oldham, chairs of The Crimson’s weekly magazine, Fifteen Minutes. Each week, they will explore controversies and diversity reviews stretching across 40 years of Harvard history, speaking to dozens of students, activists, experts, and more, to try and understand how the Harvard diversity review works — or doesn’t.

“Under Review” is produced by Zing Gee and Thomas Maisonneuve. Music by Ian Chan. Art by Meera S. Nair.