Harvard President Drew Faust has convened a University-wide task force to examine ways to help the University thrive as a place where all members of its increasingly diverse community feel that they truly belong.

The Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging will begin investigating the path from inclusion to belonging this fall. The initial phase, which will extend into the spring, will be an extended listening period that will include events around the University and a central gathering to engage the community in deliberations about life at Harvard, the dimensions of diversity now, the challenges to achieving a sense of community for all, and how those challenges affect work, learning, and research.  

The task force is co-chaired by Professor of Government and of Education Danielle Allen, director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics; Harvard Kennedy School Academic Dean Archon Fung, the Ford Foundation Professor of Democracy and Citizenship; and Vice President for Campus Services Meredith Weenick. It will conduct much of its work through four subcommittees that will focus on aspects of the task force’s charge:

  • Understanding the demographic realities across the University and how to improve the success of efforts to increase diversity;
  • The lived experience and common culture here and how it might be transformed to promote full belonging and empowerment for all members of the community;
  • Academic and intellectual resources already devoted to this issue — whether focused on Harvard or on similar issues in society more broadly — that could be plumbed for insight and guidance;
  • The organizational structures that exist across the University, such as diversity officers, programs, and initiatives at the various Schools, and how they can teach about what works, what doesn’t, and what best practices might guide additional efforts.

The three task force chairs shared their thoughts about the mission ahead with the Gazette.

GAZETTE: Why don’t we start with the big picture? What is your view of the task force’s role?

ARCHON FUNG: The role of the task force is to bring together the entire University community, including staff, faculty, and students, to think about and make recommendations about how Harvard can be a place where every single member of the community feels that he or she can belong and flourish, and can contribute to the mission of the University and of the particular unit they occupy at the University.

At its best, life at Harvard is transformative for the people who are here, because they experience new ideas, encounter people with different perspectives and experiences, and become members of communities of learning and exploration. Undergraduates develop their sense of who they are and the values that will guide them. Graduate students in Ph.D. programs gain the habits of mind necessary to join academic disciplines. In the professional Schools, students not only gain the craft, but incorporate the moral codes of their professions into their own lives.

Exposing one’s self to these possibilities for personal transformation requires courage and vulnerability. Only people who feel that they belong here, that they are at home, will be able to take full advantage of these opportunities to develop and flourish.

MEREDITH WEENICK: The president has asked us to engage thoroughly with the community and with each other on the task force. We want to understand what is working with respect to our inclusion and belonging efforts across the University, to understand what taking that to the next level would mean, and how vitally important it is to authentically move beyond traditional ideas of diversity and inclusion to the notion of belonging.

GAZETTE: Why are diversity, inclusion, and belonging important to foster in a University community?

DANIELLE ALLEN: Diversity is a fact of our social world. By definition, Harvard is inclusive, in the sense of inviting into affiliation as students, staff, and faculty people from a whole host of different backgrounds. There is surely more work to do to ensure that the invitation reaches everyone, and that we achieve inclusivity across all of Harvard’s Schools and faculties.

This is in our interest since diversity of perspective strengthens intellectual undertakings as well as administrative and support work. But the even more pressing question now is whether we can pivot from mere inclusion to the creation of an environment in which all can flourish.

Achieving a sense of belonging for all members of the Harvard community is an important measure of whether people are thriving. Even our efforts to be inclusive — to recruit a diverse faculty, students, and staff — will be strengthened by greater success at ensuring thriving for all. When all feel that they belong, we will feel the benefit of the full application of their talents to our shared problems and questions.

FUNG: It’s been important for some time but grows increasingly important as different kinds of people from different backgrounds and different social classes, different religions, different political views, indeed different parts of the world come to the University. Perhaps there was a time at the University in which people came from more similar walks of life and we could take for granted the sense that you just belonged here. It was never challenged. Everybody had a certain commonality that is no longer the case.

You cannot anymore, and we haven’t for a long time been able to, take for granted a sense of belonging at the University. “Overdue” is the wrong word, because people have been working in different Schools to foster diversity and create more inclusion. But the challenges grow as the diversity of the place increases. That’s the internal reason, but there’s an external reason also. In a globalized world, so many parts of the University have affirmative missions to make the world a better place. The School of Education, my home, the Harvard Kennedy School, the Medical School, the Harvard Chan School of Public Health, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, all have an externally oriented mission.

We are able to accomplish that mission much more effectively when we take into account the perspectives of all sorts of people — students, faculty, staff — that are as diverse as the world we aim to positively impact.

GAZETTE: Aren’t belonging and inclusion the kind of things that come naturally with time? Why does Harvard have to be intentional about it?

FUNG: Without self-conscious efforts to create more inclusive environments, we reproduce behaviors and practices and a culture that is suited probably to people who’ve been here for a long time, but not suited to the different kinds of people who now are part of the community.

About a year ago, I was meeting with one of my advisees, a Latina woman who was a joint degree student. She had come to the Kennedy School for a year and then had gone away to Boalt Law School in California for a year, and then had come back to continue her Kennedy School work. And I asked, “How was your first year as an M.P.P. student at the Kennedy School?” And she said it was just terrible. I felt bad, so I asked her to elaborate. She said that there was no place at the Kennedy School where she felt like she belonged. She felt alienated in her classes, in the different student groups that she was a part of. One part of the Kennedy School sustained her through her first year, a student group and a fellowship program in which Latina students worked together on things.

But she found the Kennedy School at that time an alien and alienating place. I think it is because of myriad factors, including others coming from very different backgrounds than her. She was a first-generation graduate student, unlike many other people here. The assumptions about culture and about politics that people make were not her assumptions and perspectives.

That heightened my awareness of and concern for these issues. We often think of overcoming problems of diversity and exclusion, the lack of belonging, as the absence of doing bad things. If we could just not offend people, if we could just not be discriminatory or bigoted, then those problems will go away. But I think it requires positive and affirmative action of all kinds, institutional and also individual. Getting along in a diverse and plural environment requires work, and it’s not to be taken for granted.

ALLEN: To think that belonging and inclusion simply come with time is a mistake we have often made ever since the Supreme Court in 1984 and 1987 ruled that it was constitutionally acceptable for states to prohibit gender-exclusive membership policies for organizations like the Jaycees and Rotary Club. Since then, organizations that have intentionally adjusted rituals, protocols, and even physical spaces — for instance, by adding bathrooms for women — have been more successful at navigating that transition than those that did not, with the unsuccessful organizations facing steep membership declines.

Organizations are homes for people; they are built and shaped around the people who inhabit them. When the people who inhabit them change, their homes should shift around them. It’s worth being intentional about that project of redesign, as one would ideally be for any home renovation project.

GAZETTE (TO WEENICK): Why is it important that the administration and the staff, including campus services that you lead, play a role in this investigation?

WEENICK: I am representing the administration and the staff writ large here, but within campus services I think about this in two distinct ways. The first is we are part of this community and part of the fabric of the experience of being a student, faculty, or other staff member within the University. We are serving all of the Schools to varying degrees, and we interact with other members of communities in large and small ways.

So we — all of our employees within campus services — have a vested interest in the overall culture of the University. We are also among the most diverse with respect to socioeconomic backgrounds, racial and ethnic backgrounds, religious and ideological backgrounds, across the University. So the imperative is already in campus services to ensure that Harvard is a place where everyone can participate, where everyone can work and execute their job to the highest possible level.

GAZETTE: Is there evidence that particular parts of the Harvard community don’t feel comfortable here?

ALLEN: Climate surveys of students and faculty, student protests, and plenty of narrative evidence offer up a picture in which too many people do not feel a sense of belonging at Harvard. This is true across many dimensions, from ethnicity and gender, sexuality, and disability, to ideology and religion.

FUNG: President Faust’s charge had a very broad conception of diversity that includes not just race and class and gender but also different levels of physical ability, religion, different ideologies, and political views. And so that breadth creates a rather daunting challenge for us, but I think it’s very appropriate.

At the Kennedy School, we’re particularly cognizant that political conservatives are a minority in the faculty and in the student body, and I suspect among the staff as well. It would be fairly personally challenging to articulate and defend your views as a Trump supporter if you were here. We know from faculty and student discussion that conservatives in the classroom and outside, in co-curricular and extracurricular activities, find it challenging to express their views and be heard and taken seriously and respected.

It is partly up to the faculty to set an appropriate tone of openness, but part of it is in the campus life and culture. One of the main challenges to conservative students expressing their views is the sense that there will be social cost. So it’s as much, probably more than anything else, the horizontal pressure of opinion of other students that is the challenge to an open and free exchange of ideas there.

GAZETTE: So when we talk about diversity and belonging, we’re talking about it quite broadly, not just along racial and ethnic fault lines, but ideological and political — not just students and faculty but staff as well?

WEENICK: Absolutely, if we think about the conversations we’ll have about the barriers to belonging here, I anticipate we will hear a wide range of experiences, different even among and within groups of staff, students, and faculty. We are also very focused on our research and teaching mission. Students and faculty are the core, but staff enable that mission. We are equal partners in creating the culture that is the University, which is why I believe our charge is really to think across all the segments of our community.

FUNG: Among us in the task force, we find it in some ways easiest to talk about diversity, inclusion, and belonging on the racial dimension or on the class dimension. It will be an effort — that we need to make — to be sure that ideological and political diversity, and those other dimensions of diversity that we’ve talked about less in the University community, are really addressed.

I personally think that religious diversity and inclusion is a real challenge for the University. I won’t say the institution is secular, but many people in it are not particularly religious. In this moment, in particular, I know from talking to Muslim students that many of them feel uncomfortable and isolated and at some risk even in our University and our School environments. That’s a dimension that merits particular attention.

GAZETTE: I don’t know if it’s time to talk about solutions yet, but do you have ideas about ways that we might be able to bring people together?

ALLEN: The Task Force will spend its first six months in a “discovery phase.” We’ll be listening and learning and thinking, hopefully with the help of the whole University community as well as with a variety of bodies of research. Only after an intense discovery phase will we begin to map out a solution space.

WEENICK: Implicit in the charge that President Faust has set forth for us is understanding the efforts that exist across campus to take a look at what may be working and not working and to then identify best practices that are localized and demonstrating success at Harvard. I look forward to understanding those efforts more deeply.

It is important to learn from both the successes and the failures across the University to make sure that we are perpetuating those things that are successful and perhaps asserting at a University level some overarching goals and values that would enable best practices. All of that said, we are far from conclusions. There’s not a monolithic answer to this because we are not a monolith. It’s important for us to remember that and to not be overly prescriptive. The value of Harvard’s heterogeneity is that that variety produces creative results, in research and in teaching and in our students.

GAZETTE: How long does the task force have to do its work, and how will its conclusions be presented?

ALLEN: President Faust has told us to take the time we need. We’re not in a position yet to say precisely what the timetable will be. For the discovery phase, we expect to have small-scale grassroots listening sessions through the fall and winter, and we anticipate organizing a larger convening in the spring. We hope in the end we will have specific, actionable recommendations for each of the four charge areas that President Faust has laid out.

WEENICK: We know there will be recommendations, but this is a very complex task. Because there’s no single problem, there’s no single solution. Culture is about the balance of how we all inhabit this space together and navigate interpersonal interactions on a daily basis. When you talk about culture shift, it’s not prescriptive, and it’s very subtle.

Culture is what we do with each other, together, and how we together strike that balance of my needs and your needs and the University’s needs together. That to me is the most interesting part of the dialogue here. You cannot dictate culture.

This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.