As the national reckoning on systemic racism continues, Harvard must translate the many written commitments to racial justice it has issued into a continuous effort to support its Black students, diversity its faculty, and to dismantle racism within and beyond Harvard’s gates. As an elite institution, Harvard serves as a gatekeeper of knowledge, scholarship, and power. To fail to use its institutional heft to advance justice when the moment so clearly demands it to would be a profound, tragic moral abdication.
In pursuit of this transformation, several aspects of University policy should come under scrutiny. The administration might begin by reexamining how someone’s criminal record factors into whether Harvard deems them worthy of admission. The over-policing of black communities, the school-to-prison pipeline, and systemic racism within the American criminal justice system make incarceration another form of legitimized oppression of Black communities. Under the United States’ current justice system, having a criminal record in and of itself is unreflective of an individual’s moral character. On any given day in the U.S., 450,000 people are serving prison time for nonviolent drug offenses. The fact that George Floyd was murdered by police for allegedly using a $20 counterfeit bill illustrates the horrifying imperfection of American law enforcement. Criminal history is certainly worth scrutinizing; however, Harvard should not unilaterally rule out applicants to any school or employment position because of a criminal record. Instead, it should lead other universities by releasing thoughtful principles for how to examine an individual’s criminal record in a manner cognizant of the obviously flawed justice system.
Harvard also locks faculty members of color outside of its gates. The diversity reflected in the College’s student body is not mirrored by those who teach them, with serious adverse effects. Diverse faculty enhance scholarship and instruction by bringing new perspectives and empathies to academia. By denying tenure to highly qualified scholars of color — such as associate professor Lorgia García Peña — working across different disciplines at different schools, the University sends the message that the academic world is meant for white people. Harvard must make an effort to make sure that the many talented academics of color can make a home at Harvard.
But the University’s obligations to Black students cannot stop after they’re in. One of Harvard’s most glaring failures in this regard is its refusal to create a multicultural center, which students, particularly from marginalized backgrounds, have been calling for 50 years. Peer institutions such as Yale, Princeton, and Brown built cultural centers for their students by the 1970s. Yet, as recently as 2019, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana said more research was required before the College would consider doing the same. But isn’t a half a century of outcry enough? Now more than ever, the value provided by a multicultural center — a physical space on campus for Black and other minority communities to gather, support one another, and foster community in a predominantly white institution — should be apparent. In response to recent vile racist email attacks, University President Lawrence S. Bacow said that “we must stand strong and support each other, especially when others would seek to divide us.” Your Black students have made it abundantly clear that this is the support they are looking for. Now is the time for the administration to provide it.
Another crucial way Harvard can support Black students is to diversify and expand its mental health staff. Witnessing racial violence and experiencing discrimination are known to have dire psychological consequences for Black people; anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression can develop in response. The apparent lack of mental health professionals of color at Harvard means that Black students who turn to Harvard’s Counseling and Mental Health Services for help coping with racial trauma face the possibility of being met with personnel who simply can’t grasp what they’re going through. Hiring diverse mental health personnel who can provide culturally contextualized services, especially now, is another important way the University can support black students.
Though these administrative changes would be valuable, genuine transformation requires much deeper, more systemic change. When students depart Harvard, they need to be sensitive to issues of race in their field. Race shapes nearly every facet of the American experience, and thus discussions of race cannot end in the African and African American Studies Department (nor in the severely understaffed Ethnic Studies field). We propose making a racial justice course a requirement for all concentrations to elucidate the racial dynamics at play in every discipline and future line of work. The specter of racism in technology, medicine, economics, and other fields needs to be part of Harvard students’ preparation in these fields so that the University doesn’t produce racially insensitive students set on becoming world and industry leaders. The University must ensure that race is treated as a society-wide, discipline-wide issue, rather than one that concerns only a select number of individuals. Perhaps the Black Lives Matter Movement would not have been so eye-opening for some Harvard students had they been better exposed to racial issues while in Cambridge.
Harvard continues to function as a gatekeeper to positions of influence in our society. Institutionalized racism that is pervasive within Harvard’s gates undoubtedly contributes to the endemic racism in the United States. University leadership has a unique and powerful position from which they can work to dismantle racism. This work begins by listening to student activists who continue to commit their labor to fight for racial justice, whom Bacow and others in the administration have in the past written off as naively hasty or unreasonable and unworthy of negotiation. Until we see some of these changes around our campus, President Bacow’s soaring rhetoric rings hollow.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.