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Tiya Miles: Rip or Repair? How To Respond to Harvard’s Year of Crisis.

By Mairead B. Baker
By Tiya Miles, Contributing Opinion Writer
Tiya A. Miles ’92 is the Michael Garvey Professor of History and the Radcliffe Alumnae Professor.

A couple of years ago, I participated in a Zoom event held by Harriett’s Bookshop, a store in Philadelphia owned by Black women, which included a segment called “Rip or Repair.” My co-panelists and I were asked to respond with one of these choices in rapid-fire reaction to a prompt. When the United States Constitution was listed, the panel split: half for ‘rip,’ half for ‘repair.’ I voted to save the founding document upon which our modern freedoms depend.

I am a scholar of slavery and race relations with four prize-winning histories published on these topics. I am not naïve about the flaws of U.S. history, but I want to see this country last.

I feel the same way about Harvard — a great yet imperfect university that has been trapped in a horror show this year, as, among other things, a sustained external campaign against DEI harmed individual reputations, damaged the trust that we have in each other, and clouded our ability to triage threats to our most valuable asset: the sense that we are in this together.

In December, former Harvard University President Claudine Gay testified before Congress alongside MIT President Sally A. Kornbluth and former University of Pennsylvania President Elizabeth Magill. Enough ink has been spilled analyzing that congressional circus. Suffice it to say that aside from its stated goal of investigating antisemitism, the hearing emphasized a bane of the political right: Diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Conservatives have long been suspicious of DEI and Critical Race Theory, which they see as linked. They worry that these approaches stifle freedom of thought, action, and expression by mandating sensitivity trainings and diversity statements, and they argue that a growing campus bureaucracy reflects a toxic orthodoxy that draws outsized resources.

DEI is, in truth, a motley set of practices and ideas that I would not champion in every occurrence, and any educational program should be subject to critique and reform. But there may be a darker intent behind some of these charges. As revealed in a New York Times investigative report, some far-right activists seem to hope that crushing DEI programs will turn the societal clock back to a time when fewer women, fewer people of color, and fewer LGBTQ people could enter universities like Harvard and emerge as leaders.

My own experience with DEI is that the best of these programs open opportunities to greater numbers of students; foster a sense of belonging in places that have traditionally been monolithic, exclusionary, and cold; and showcase the idea that diversity is an institutional and societal strength. They give students the chance to know one another and work together despite different backgrounds and experiences, fostering the kind of co-exposure and collaboration upon which a healthy civil society depends.

DEI became a target after the congressional hearing unleashed a public frenzy against President Gay, Harvard’s first Black and second female president. Gay faced scathing criticism for her testimony before Congress (for which members of the Corporation have recently acknowledged they did not adequately prepare her). Then critics ramped up anonymous plagiarism charges against Gay, carefully timed to do the most damage, according to Christopher F. Rufo, a conservative activist who first publicized the accusations.

Many of the ugliest attacks on Gay were not about her comments on Capitol Hill or even about plagiarism, but rather about her construal by critics as the queen of DEI. The Harvard historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad, the Harvard Crimson Editorial Board, Claudine Gay herself, and many others, have argued that deposing Gay was an opportunistic effort to undercut the cultural authority of higher education.

It was not long before the campaign against DEI at Harvard evolved, appearing to single out Black women as a group. Black female administrators and scholars were scrutinized, accused of wrongdoing on social media, and represented as symbols of a DEI-CRT regime. The media storm of negative stories about Black women had the effect of presenting diversity as a bankrupt and even corrupt value that the University should reject.

“Let’s not ignore the pattern,” Rufo said on X.“This is the fourth black female CRT/DEI scholar to be accused of plagiarism at Harvard [...] initial reports suggest that the grievance disciplines are rife with fraud.” Plagiarism is obviously bad, but it strains credulity and the public record to think that only or mainly Black women have made these mistakes. The “pattern” that Rufo cites is not natural.

As many of us lost sleep fixating on rhetoric like Rufo’s and questioning how our community could conscience such mean-spirited barbs, former President Donald J. Trump steadily advanced toward the Republican nomination, praising autocrats and claiming that he wants to be “dictator for a day.”

This escalated DEI culture war diverts time, emotion, and resources from the bigger threat: “democratic recession.” Is DEI more dangerous than dictatorship? Anyone who joins me in answering “no” has a shared purpose.

In a 1975 speech given at Portland State University, Toni Morrison famously declared that the function of racism is distraction, meaning that racism operates to distract those on the receiving end from doing their vital work. Similarly, the anti-DEI crusade represents a diversion from the real threat to universities and free societies posed by vitriolic divisions. To overcome them, we must rediscover our common accord.

Repairing the university means defending the spirit of our collectivity. Class of 2024, ever excellent, ever resilient: we need you to help lead the way.

Tiya A. Miles ’92 is the Michael Garvey Professor of History and the Radcliffe Alumnae Professor.

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