Comping Creativity

​When high school seniors open their acceptance letters to Harvard, they are invited to attend one of the world’s most exclusive institutions. But when students who decide to matriculate arrive on campus as freshmen, they find a whole new set of exclusive institutions with their own barriers to entry. Getting into Harvard doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll feel at home here.

When high school seniors open their acceptance letters to Harvard, they are invited to attend one of the world’s most exclusive institutions. But when students who decide to matriculate arrive on campus as freshmen, they find a whole new set of exclusive institutions with their own barriers to entry. Getting into Harvard doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll feel at home here.

While some students feel easily welcomed into the jargon-heavy culture, others, particularly students of color and those from lower-class backgrounds, say they feel that the College is full of stratified, closed-off organizations. This phenomenon is, according to these students, especially apparent in student groups dedicated to the performing and literary arts.

After all, entrance to many of Harvard’s most prestigious artistic institutions is granted only after a demanding, semester-long comp process. According to organization leaders, these comps are often easier—and less daunting—for students with the time, resources, and prior education relevent to the organization’s particular sphere.

Students from wealthy backgrounds and rigorous prep schools often benefit from this system, having already discussed Heidegger around Harkness tables and performed in Pericles as adolescents. Meanwhile, students from modest backgrounds, particularly those of color, say they find that the comp processes—and other aspects of the organizations themselves—perpetuate inequality and exclusivity. Tired of feeling left out of the performing and literary arts scene at Harvard, some have even forged their own communities of expression.


“I remember coming to the Advocate and being very intimidated, and coming to comp meetings and being terrified of everyone,” says Yen H. Pham ’16, a former Fiction Editor of The Harvard Advocate. “I didn’t connect this to issues of inclusivity until much later.”

Founded in 1866, the Advocate is the oldest continuously published college literary magazine in America, making it older than the state of Colorado, the telephone, and the Fourteenth Amendment. Naturally, as with almost any organization conceived before the promise of equal protection under the law, many of the Advocate’s historically lauded alumni are, in large part, white males—like T.S. Eliot, Class of 1909, Donald Hall ’51, and Norman Mailer ’43.

History presents a quandary for an organization attempting to come across as inclusive, welcoming, and diverse. Should they flaunt their past, or move beyond it?

“I don’t think that celebrating our very white, male history prevents us from being more inclusive,” Pham argues, “as much as the fact that we continue to focus a lot on that history, while ignoring the ways in which the Advocate has improved recently.”

“We have many alumni who aren’t Norman Mailer,” she jokes.

The question of how best to increase diversity, in spite of a whitewashed past, is not unique to the Advocate. In fact, it’s one that nearly all arts organizations at Harvard try to answer as they recruit new classes of students.

An absence of diversity, Pham argues, can be traced back to the comp process.

“You’re a freshman, you come into this dark room, late at night, and there are candles and upperclassmen, who are smoking and drinking wine, and they do these sorts of very obscure readings from the Western Canon,” recalls Pham, in reference to her experiences at the Advocate. “Our comp process…privileged the kind of literary analysis you were most likely to have been exposed to only in a New England prep school or something.”

Julian C. Lucas ’15, a former president of the Advocate, sees some of these problems as difficult to fix. “The aura of the organization…is very difficult to change,” he says. “You can’t change the look of buildings, you can’t change the roster of alumni...and no matter what is done in the present, the legacy is exclusive in a certain way that is negative.”

“The history of Harvard,” he claims, “the history of the United States, is that the further back you go, the more racially and gender-exclusive they are.”

Yet, in spite of these obstacles, Lucas suggests the organization has “improved tremendously” in recent years.

“When I joined, I was the only black person I knew on the Advocate,” Lucas explains. “But when Kevin Hong [’15] and I were elected president and publisher two years ago, inclusivity was one of the first things we talked about, and we tried to address it.”

Alongside Hong, Lucas invited other student organizations, from the African Students Association to the Harvard College Writers Workshop, to partake in collaborative events in their building, “to demonstrate that we’re not an organization that exists just to serve our members, but the whole arts community.”

Lucas did not stop there. Alongside Pham and others at the organization, he helped create an internal demographic survey to better understand how the Advocate’s own members viewed diversity on the magazine.

According to Pham, the survey revealed that the group’s membership skewed heavily toward over-representing students from New York City, while African American and Latino students proved under-represented. Over half the respondents reported that inclusivity of race and class at the organization was a “problem.”

Pham explains that the survey was troubling in that it suggested that, perhaps, the Advocate may miss out on talented prospective members who don’t think that it’s a “space for them.” This problem, however, is one she sees as more complex than just shifting policy.

“As much as I’m coming from a perspective where I’m a member of the Advocate and want it to improve,” she says, “I think it’s up to minority populations to decide whether or not they’re best served by trying to improve primarily white institutions, or whether they’re better served by creating their own outlets.”


In April, a group of Harvard students launched Renegade, an arts and advocacy collective of writers, musicians, poets, activists, and thinkers for students of color on campus. Their mission: “Rediscovering our identities as people of color [at Harvard] by remembering our ancestors’ courageous stories and by dismantling the regimes of colonization and oppression still present at this university.”

Renegade is not the first organization that was founded to provide artists of color with a voice at Harvard. In 1970, a group of black students on campus created the Kuumba Singers with a similar objective: “To express the creativity and spirituality of black people.”

Organizations like BlackC.A.S.T. (a group intended to “provide students of color with a greater opportunity to be involved in theater”) and Renegade echo Kuumba’s effort to create more welcoming arts spaces at Harvard.

Renegade and BlackC.A.S.T. could not be reached for comment.

While these groups are each different in their own ways, they share a common purpose: providing minority students at Harvard with an outlet to express their creativity. After all, even though the College has significantly increased the diversity of the student body in the 45 years since Kuumba’s founding, some artists of color still feel shut out on campus. As LeShae Henderson ’16, president of Kuumba, explains, “Change is slow to come for a lot of these things, and Harvard obviously was made for a certain type of person, so even though now our student body is more diverse, it’ll take time for Harvard itself to be more accommodating to that diversity.” She doesn’t quite see this day as one that is fast approaching.

“I’m not that optimistic,” she concedes. “Because it’s 2015 and something like Renegade is still a necessity.”


“I think when most people say ‘I’m not going to join The Crimson,’ it is not because it represents Old Harvard, but because it represents a modern vision of a white boy institution,” says Ignacio Sabaté ’17, a Crimson news writer and blog comp director who leads the newspaper’s Diversity and Inclusivity Committee, a group formed last year to discuss staff diversity and recruiting.

Sabaté argues that The Crimson has two central problems with diversity: First, that it has trouble attracting “the most diverse group of people” to the building from the start and second, that when students of color join, they don’t necessarily “stay in the building.”

Sabaté believes that The Crimson, like the Advocate, should reform its comp process to better recruit students from various cultural groups on campus and more actively publicize its financial aid program, which provides students on financial aid up to $100 a week for their work at the paper.

Other arts organizations on campus, like the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club, face similar challenges, and attempt solutions of their own.

“We get fewer people of color auditioning,” explains Megan G. Jones ’16, the Historian for HRDC. “We have this [history] of being specifically white, upper-class, so it’s hard and scary to want to try and enter into that when the norm has already been set.”

“It can be daunting to audition for a show, so that you can be the token person of color, or the token representation of diversity,” observes Jones. “That’s not a fair onus to put on any actor.” Jones and the rest of the HRDC’s board ask that shows conduct “race-blind casting,” in an effort to “make this a better, more-inclusive, more diverse space.”

Sabaté isn’t entirely convinced that institutional procedures can create the cultural shift necessary to bring about real diversity.

“For a lot of these problems, you can’t necessarily enact a policy. It’s about talking about these issues and bringing them into people’s consciousness,” he says. “You can create a million different measures to create diversity at The Crimson, and we might still not have a representative group of people.”

Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman ’67 agrees that issues of diversity and inclusion are more complicated than they may appear. “I don’t think it’s simply enough to say we are a more diverse student body,” he says. “I think we have to constantly be working on what it genuinely means to be open and inclusive.”

While some arts institutions on campus, such as the Advocate and The Crimson, are working on reforming their comp processes to be more inclusive, other organizations rely on different methods of recruitment. The Signet, for instance, introduced an open application process this year, while the HRDC welcomes in any students who want to join; The Harvard Lampoon’s comp is “blind,” which means students submit their work anonymously.

But ultimately, as Sabaté argues in describing The Crimson’s own struggles to increase diversity, the policies these organizations enact may matter less than the day-to-day environment they foster. “I think they’re definitely making an effort to be more inclusive,” says Henderson, referring to Harvard’s arts and literary organizations. “But at the end of the day, people’s attitudes within each of these organizations is what makes them exclusive.”

“Even if you force a group to be more diverse,” she continues, “that doesn’t always necessarily mean that people of color are going to feel comfortable in those types of spaces.”