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‘An Uncomfortable Truth’: Khurana Reflects on Landmark Legacy of Slavery Report

Harvard College Dean Rakesh Khurana addressed Harvard's historical ties to slavery in a Thursday interview.
Harvard College Dean Rakesh Khurana addressed Harvard's historical ties to slavery in a Thursday interview. By Pei Chao Zhuo
By Vivi E. Lu and Leah J. Teichholtz, Crimson Staff Writers

Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana lauded the importance of the University’s landmark Legacy of Slavery report in a Thursday interview.

The Legacy of Slavery report, a long-awaited University initiative examining Harvard’s ties to slavery, detailed how slavery “powerfully shaped Harvard.” Released last month, the report found that Harvard faculty, staff, and leaders enslaved more than 70 Black and Indigenous people over about 150 years.

Following the report, Khurana said it was crucial for the College to “incorporate this history” as part of its “narrative.”

“We have to recognize that the legacy of slavery continues to this day and is manifest in a variety of social institutions and practices that are often uncontested,” Khurana said.

Khurana also said the College recognizes the “entanglement” that the nation has had with enslavement of both Black and Indigenous people.

“The report is really important to remind us of those origins and also the imprint that founding conditions have on an institution even centuries later,” Khurana said. “We have to acknowledge the wealth that was acquired during the enslavement of people as well as how it was transferred.”

“That’s part of our history,” he added.

Earlier this month, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay introduced an FAS denaming process for removing controversial names and titles — the first initiative to address the Legacy of Slavery report. The University has also committed $100 million to redress its ties to slavery.

Khurana said he has been inspired by the advocacy and leadership efforts of students in the wake of the report.

“‘Veritas’ is about preferring and living with an uncomfortable truth over a comfortable lie,” Khurana said. “What gave me hope was to see the role of our students and our community countering oppressive institutions and challenging racist ideas.”

Khurana also addressed the following topics in the interview:

Student Rallies on Abortion Rights

In response to a leaked Supreme Court draft majority opinion that would strike down the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, Harvard students staged a series of rallies about abortion earlier this month. Around 100 Harvard students demonstrated in support of abortion rights outside Memorial Church while a smaller group gathered nearby in counterprotest.

Khurana said the College recognizes the importance of the “plurality of perspectives” on issues on Harvard’s campus.

“We want our students to engage and express their views,” Khurana said. “We also encourage engagement in a variety of ways through voting, through encouraging people to advance their beliefs both on and off campus and use the tools of free expression.”

While he declined to comment on the implications of the draft opinion, Khurana said the College continues to support students “in ways they need.”

Reflections on the 2021-2022 Academic Year

Khurana called the past academic year — the first fully on-campus year since 2018-2019 — both “wonderful” and “hard.”

Though he cited a number of stressors for students over the past year, including the war in Ukraine and the threat of climate change, he expressed cautious optimism about the future.

“There’s so many challenges our world faces,” Khurana said. “Things are gonna get better. I see signs of hope and possibility everywhere on these issues.”

The Crimson interviews Harvard College Dean Rakesh Khurana once per month during the academic year. Click here to submit a question for consideration in our next interview.

—Staff writer Vivi E. Lu can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @vivielu_.

—Staff writer Leah J. Teichholtz can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @LeahTeichholtz.

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