Campus & Community

A national wave hits Harvard

6 min read

Issues of race, inclusion prompt fresh discussions; police probe Law School defacement; report outlines diversity concerns

Issues of race and inclusion swept across Harvard late last week, with a College report on efforts to create a more diverse and inclusive campus, a demonstration and march in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, an incident at Harvard Law School that spurred outrage and national attention, demands from students of Latin-American origin, and statements of support from University administrators.

On Thursday morning, portraits of black professors on the walls of Wasserstein Hall at Harvard Law School had black tape across their faces. The incident prompted an ongoing police investigation and set off a wave of concern among students and University officials amid a growing movement for racial justice that is unfolding in colleges across the country.

“It was an act of blatant racism,’ said Leland Shelton, JD’16, president of the Harvard Black Law Students Association. “I was taken aback that somebody had the audacity to do this.”

In an email to students, faculty, and staff, Harvard President Drew Faust reaffirmed her strongly held belief that more needs to be done to achieve racial justice and full inclusion at Harvard. “We have much work to do to make certain that Harvard belongs to every one of us,” said Faust. “We must create the conditions in which each one of us feels confident in declaring, ‘I, too, am Harvard.’ ”

In a written statement, Dean Martha Minow of the Law School decried the tape incident and said that “expressions of hatred are abhorrent.”

Minow held a public meeting at HLS Thursday in a room filled with students, faculty, and administrators. Students said the meeting was a necessary step to open conversation with administrators about changes in curricula, and efforts to attract a more diverse faculty and make the Schools more inclusive.

In response to the HLS incident, Faust told members of the Harvard community that “we join together as a University in deploring the defacing of portraits of African-American faculty at the Law School.”

A historian of the American South who has often lamented the lasting impact of the nation’s shameful history of slavery, segregation, and racism, Faust condemned actions designed to create division and to denigrate others, saying, “Such acts of hatred are inimical to our most fundamental values and represent an assault on the mutual respect essential to our purposes as a community of learning and inquiry.”

Last year, the College launched an effort to tackle the issue of diversity by forming a Working Group on Diversity and Inclusion, led by Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church. The group’s mission was to “ensure that all students benefit equally” from what the College has to offer.

College officials released the working group’s report Thursday. It included recommendations to diversify the College, and to support affinity-based students groups on campus and in multicultural centers, among others.

“Each year, the entering freshman class of Harvard College is more racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse than the year before,” said the report. “Harvard’s administration, faculty, and staff, however, continue to lag behind in terms of diversity.”

The Class of 2019, according to Harvard’s admission statistics, includes African-Americans (11 percent), Asian-Americans (21 percent), Hispanics or Latinos (13 percent), Native Americans or Pacific Islanders (1.5 percent).

In an email, Danoff Dean of Harvard College Rakesh Khurana told the College community that “I encourage each of you to read this report, and to consider, as I am, possible actions that we should take, and are already taking, to ensure that Harvard can become a truly inclusive community.”

That same day as the incident at HLS and the release of the College report, Faust met with another group of minority students from Harvard Latinx, a term used to describe students of Latin American origin,  who presented her with a letter listing demands to fight racism and discrimination on campus and, among other objectives, to increase diversity among faculty. After the meeting, Faust said she welcomes “the opportunity to work with [the Latinx students] to combat these injustices and to foster the culture of belonging to which Harvard is committed.”

On Wednesday, the day before these developments, Harvard students held a demonstration at Science Center Plaza and marched to Porter Square to support black student protests at Yale University and the University of Missouri. Faust and Khurana took part in the demonstration but didn’t march.

Michele Hall, an HLS student, was among the first to react publicly to the defaced photos, through a post on Blavity, a website for black millennials. “I’m still outraged, frustrated, and upset,” Hall told the Gazette. “But I feel hopeful that the outrage will be a catalyst for Harvard Law School to make changes and create a culture of inclusion.”

Mawuse Vormawor, an HLS student, would like the School to change its seal, the coat of arms of the family of Isaac Royall Jr., a Massachusetts slaveholder who helped to establish the School with a bequest from his estate. The night before the photos incident, Vormawor and other students placed black tape across seals they found in Wasserstein Hall. The next morning, the tape was removed and placed on the portraits of the black professors, said Vormawor.

By Thursday afternoon, the black tape was gone from the portraits, and instead, students and colleagues had begun placing sticky notes with messages of support and encouragement.

A note placed on the picture of Tomiko Brown-Nagin said, “You inspire us.” Another, on the photograph of Charles Ogletree Jr., said, “I’ve learned more from you about how to treat people in the three months I spent at your office than in the other 6.9 years I’ve worked here.” On the picture of Scott Brewer, a note said, “Proud to be your colleague.”

On Friday morning, Karlene Griffiths Sekou, a Divinity School student, came to Wasserstein Hall to show support for the black professors whose photographs were vandalized. She too hoped for change.

“The sense is we don’t belong in here, that we don’t fit the mold,” said Griffiths Sekou. “It’s time for change, for real, structural and systemic changes, not just rhetoric.”