One night in the late 1960s, perhaps around this time of year, a group of black male Harvard students left a Radcliffe College dormitory blanketed by the purple haze of an early night. As they headed back to their dorms, their walk was stopped short. A Harvard security officer asked for their IDs; in doing so, he was demanding they prove their right to exist freely on College property. But as the students began to reach for their wallets, they noticed that a group of white males had not been similarly stopped. The black students refused to show their wallets in defiance.
When I read stories like these from Martha Biondi’s “Black Revolution on Campus,” I want to believe that Harvard has outgrown the idea that belonging here requires that we look a certain way or come from a certain background.
But then, I am forced to face reality.
Last Thursday, I read an open letter to the Harvard community from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Latinx Student Association. It detailed an incident on Oct. 24 in which three women of color were setting up an art installation for a class called SPANSH 126: “Performing Latinidad” — an installation approved by the Harvard Yard Operations Office. The letter alleged it wasn’t long before the Harvard University Police Department was called; the police “approached the students with hostility” and “operated under the assumption that these were not Harvard students, and therefore subject to removal.” The students were repeatedly questioned for some time before they called on their professor to intervene, to no avail and their professor, also a woman of color, was treated as though she didn’t belong either, the letter alleges.
Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Claudine Gay commissioned a report after this event; it declared that there was no evidence of “malicious intent” on the part of the Harvard police — but this is irrelevant. What matters is how clearly the narration of the interaction, in both the police and the students’ accounts, can be situated within the history of racial profiling on college campuses. Perhaps those writing the report understood this, which is why the report recommended Harvard review its policy on how operations and security personnel interact with students.
This incident arrives on the heels of the Pilot Pulse Survey, which shows that 23 percent of community members feel as though they don’t belong at Harvard; most are students who have been pushed to the margins. In light of all this, it’s clear that Harvard’s approach to “inclusion and belonging” simply isn’t working.
This isn’t to say that Harvard’s community hasn’t improved in the last five or so decades. Efforts to include students of diverse backgrounds, as well as the belated merger of Radcliffe with Harvard College in 1999 and the founding of the BGLTQ Office in 2012, have helped lower historical barriers against minority groups. These changes are a result of years of advocacy and activism on the part of students and faculty who demanded space for themselves on campus, who asserted that they belong here too.
Harvard often responds to concerns like these with bureaucratic buzzwords: initiatives, workshops, task forces. Sometimes, these work. But other times, formal apparatuses only go so far. Harvard’s failed attempts to reduce sexual harassment and assault on campus over the past four years are a clear example of why the current framework, and the bureaucracy that sustains it, aren’t enough.
Bureaucratic changes fail for two reasons. The first is abstract — these changes aim for integration into an abstract “Harvard community” rather than reimagining what that community is. Integration doesn’t create something new. More often than not, it attempts to fit people into a broken system. The reforms pursued under this idea of inclusion and belonging requires students of marginalized backgrounds to assimilate to the culture that Harvard has always had: one that has historically excluded those same groups through the same cultures of belonging.
Harvard has also stated that change should focus primarily on academic and professional instead of “social problems,” failing to recognize that social contexts are where these problems originate and take root. When proposed solutions neglect the social fabric of an institution, they silence the possibility of transformative cultural change.
The second reason bureaucratic changes fail is more practical. When these solutions develop within the existing framework of the university, they almost never cater to student concerns or needs. Take the Culture Lab Innovation Fund, which imprudently combines the principles of a start-up incubator with the goals of social justice. The fund asks members of the community to pitch ideas that will improve inclusion and belonging in exchange for the chance to win up to $15,000 for their project. While well-intentioned, most projects that emerge are surface-level bandages that are ill-suited to solve deep-rooted historical problems.
If Harvard is truly dedicated to inclusion and belonging, it needs to radically reorient its approach. Some reforms will be bureaucratic or procedural, like creating workshops that address racial or intersectional literacy or expanding the First-Year Retreat and Experience pre-orientation program; others require a deeper commitment to inclusion, like the creation of a multicultural center. These actions, while more difficult, would demonstrate strong commitments to real, substantive methods of inclusion. They would show that Harvard doesn’t want to just fit people into a system built on historical exclusion — rather, they want to build a new system from the ground up.
Finally, the Harvard administration cannot begin to understand what it feels like to have to prove that you belong here until they speak to those that have done so — students like the three women of color setting up an art installation for a class on identity. Only through earnest conversations like these can we truly “create” a culture that includes everyone at Harvard.
Ajay V. Singh ’21 is a Social Studies concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.