Students at Harvard dot the globe; wherever you’re from, you can find a reminder of home tucked in between Harvard’s brick and mortar. And for having a world-renowned education, the school does a decent job in trying to have diversity, in culling people together who have just the right shades of skin to match the ideas they want to promote in their brochures.
Yet, for a school that emphasizes a heavy-handed commitment to diversity, it fails to actually cater to these groups in any meaningful way.
Understandably, this may catch many by surprise. There are probably dozens of cultural groups on campus that spring to mind that preserve and highlight different cultures like insects in amber in the name of diversity. Educational opportunities such as African and African American Studies, East Asian Studies, and the burgeoning Ethnic Studies field still attempt to drag Harvard’s educational focus away from eurocentric curriculums and provide a more global perspective. All of these developments are great insofar that they offer certain groups their due space in both educational and social spheres on campus.
To some, this may come across as completely embodying the purportedly “diverse” experience of a Harvard education. But diversity isn’t captured by solely crystallizing these groups in their respective spaces. Diversity is not simply allowing for people who belong to these different cultures to participate in each of their own self-organized, self-perpetuated organizations. Rather, diversity requires a plethora of different people, perspectives, and cultural traditions to come together and engage in an exchange of ideas.
These groups and educational opportunities certainly serve their purpose and act as spaces for students to find familiar comfort in the difficult and sometimes foreign environment that Harvard can be. However, having groups like the Black Students Association or Fuerza Latina or the Asian American Women’s Association on campus hardly constitutes the lofty claim that Harvard is a diverse institution.
For diversity to exist, the University must not only support the existence of these student-run groups, but it must also nurture cross- and multi-cultural discussions on both an academic and social level. And especially in regards to the latter, there’s a huge solution that the University has been sidestepping for decades: the creation of a multicultural center. Having a space where students of multiple different backgrounds could come together and interact with one another and share their rich cultures would shatter the compartmentalization that may occur if these groups are simply left to their own devices. A multicultural center brings students together in a relaxed setting to engage in cultural exchanges that are the hallmarks of diversity.
But in the past, Harvard hasn’t always been receptive to creating these spaces or fostering conversations around a multicultural center. Calls for a center focusing on historically underrepresented people on campus were heard from students as early as 1973. In the 1980s, Harvard students submitted proposals for a “Third World Center”; its purpose was to serve the “legitimate needs, history, and culture” of students whose ethnicities belonged to one of many minority groups at the College. Advocates for the proposal submitted heavily researched support, underscoring the center’s importance through a number a different angles, namely its strong connection to affirmative action, the anti-apartheid movement, and a blatant lack of support for then-called “third world students”.
This proposal also mentioned the benefits of Third World Centers at peer universities such as Princeton and Brown to further bolster their reasoning to establish this center at Harvard. A 1995 proposal echoed this call with similar sentiments; yet, the University still met these proposals with little movement towards the creation of this center until very recently.
Now — 45 years after students recognized the need for a multicultural space on campus— Harvard is in the process of developing a center based off of the findings of its “Inclusion and Belonging” Task Force that more or less echoes the exact things that students have been writing about for decades. This building, carefully referred to by the University as a center of either “Identity, Politics, and Culture” or of “Inclusion and Belonging”, is purported to offer students “full membership to the Harvard community.”
Yet even dancing around the name of the proposed multicultural center and calling it anything other than a multicultural center misses the point. This haphazard attempt at sparking diversity by trying to refer to all students rather than honing in on the students it promises to make feel at home already embarks on this journey to “full membership” on shoddy groundwork.
The proposed center will not be a multicultural center if it fails to keep these historically marginalized cultures and communities at the core of its institutional purpose. An “Inclusion and Belonging” center, however nice and cuddly its title may be, it is not an adequate substitute for the necessary focus on multiculturalism that the University desperately needs in order to to make good on its commitment to diversity, and to make its most marginalized members feel welcomed.
I bought into “brochure” Harvard, and to a large degree, I still do. But in order to fully become what the University presents itself as in its advertisements, photos, and messages to the student body and others, it must truly begin to commit to diversity with a multicultural center (and not any other excuse for it).
Jessenia N. Class ’20, a Crimson Associate Editorial Editor, is a Cognitive Neuroscience and Evolutionary Psychology concentrator in Quincy House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.