Campus & Community

Afternoon of Engagement offered personal anecdotes, suggestions

6 min read

Staff ‘provided powerful insights about how we might do better’

This past fall, Harvard President Drew Faust convened a University-wide task force to examine ways to help Harvard thrive as a place where all members of its increasingly diverse community feel that they truly belong. The task force is co-chaired by James Bryant Conant University Professor Danielle Allen, director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for EthicsHarvard Kennedy School Academic Dean Archon Fung, the Ford Foundation Professor of Democracy and Citizenship; and Vice President for Campus Services Meredith Weenick.

Last month, the Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging hosted a campus-wide event, the Afternoon of Engagement, for which capacity crowds filled Sanders Theatre and the Joseph B. Martin Conference Center in Longwood. An audience of staff, students, and academic personnel engaged in a program of storytelling and small group participatory reflection. A report titled “What We Learned from the Afternoon of Engagement” was released earlier this month. The task force’s co-chairs recently sat down with the Harvard Gazette to discuss this report, their first year, and what’s next for this important work.

GAZETTE: What are some of the most important lessons learned from the Afternoon of Engagement?

DANIELLE ALLEN: Often when universities tackle the issues of diversity, inclusion, and belonging they focus exclusively on students and academic personnel and don’t bring the staff perspective into the conversation. Staff turned out in high numbers for the Afternoon of Engagement and provided powerful insights about how we might do better at on-boarding and mentoring all members of our community, regardless of their role. The conversations also shined a light on Harvard’s very hierarchical culture and surfaced good ideas for fostering stronger norms of hospitality in Schools, academic departments, and business units.

GAZETTE: It seems like feedback fell across the spectrum of ideas. Is there a theme that you see running through the points raised?

ARCHON FUNG: We were delighted to receive so many suggestions from so many different perspectives. Though we are still processing the information, several themes struck me. Many people talked about the “impostor syndrome.” Many people — including many staff, academic personnel, and students — have a deep sense that they do not belong at Harvard because in some way they aren’t smart enough or accomplished enough. Stephanie Khurana, chair of the Outreach subcommittee and faculty dean of Cabot House, is leading many listening sessions and workshops across the University, and one key word that people associate with Harvard is “elite.” Perhaps “impostor” is a psychological flip side of this “elite” institution. Another theme is the relational nature of Harvard and the difficulty that creates for newcomers and outsiders; it is difficult to break into these webs of relationships and to decode the tacit knowledge of the organization. Many people also discussed the importance of lowering the “walls” that separate the different Schools from one another and of building more respectful relationships between academic personnel, staff, and students.

GAZETTE: Were there opinions or thoughts expressed that were unexpected?

MEREDITH WEENICK: We are grateful that participants published so many stories of their personal experiences, which resulted in a wide spectrum of perspectives on University culture. One theme we heard was how important first experiences are — for staff, academic personnel, and students. The “welcome” period can really define the experience of studying and working at Harvard for years afterward. I was also surprised to hear the deep interest in getting to know aspects of the University beyond the boundaries of an individual’s School or unit. It appears that Harvard’s breadth and depth are essentially mysteries to many members of our community, and while there is curiosity to learn more, it’s hard for people to access other parts of the University or they feel they must be invited in.

HMS students Folarera Tasawe (left) and Jane Riccardi during “A Celebration of Inclusion and Belonging” held in April at Sanders Theatre. Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

GAZETTE: Did different Harvard constituencies or Schools/units express different concerns? How do you balance School-/unit-specific or even constituent-specific input with the broader mission of the task force?

WEENICK: The experience of being part of the Harvard community is grounded in individuals’ experiences in their Schools and units, so it’s not surprising that many people shared stories specific to their daily life at the University. It is important for us to distinguish the role of the task force as focusing on University-level efforts to advance the goals of inclusion and belonging. School- and unit-based efforts are vital to our collective progress, and the task force wants to draw on local successes to elevate best practices and key learnings that may be more broadly or systematically shared. The vast array of systems and structures across the University is not suited for a one-size-fits-all strategy to address any challenge, and the task force hopes to develop ideas that both respect that variety and enable progress. 

GAZETTE: How can the community continue to engage in this work?

FUNG: Continued community engagement is the most important component of successfully addressing the challenges of inclusion and belonging. Most immediately, we’d love for people to contribute their ideas to the Solution Space portal that we’ve created. People should also read the report that summarizes the Afternoon of Engagement to learn how some in our community view the challenges and what might be done about it. Many participants made individual commitments to act in ways that foster inclusion and belonging in their offices, labs, and classrooms. Ask yourself what you might start doing today to make your corner of Harvard more inclusive. Who can you help to feel that they belong here? We’ve asked for lots of people from around the University to engage with us during the discovery phase, and we are grateful to the many people who did so. As the task force moves forward, we hope that people from all across the University will continue to work together to increase inclusion and belonging at Harvard.

GAZETTE: Where does the task force go from here?

ALLEN: The task force has learned so much from listening sessions and research over the course of this academic year. We have now begun mapping out the solution space, starting from an effort to articulate shared aspirational standards across domains such as values, symbolic repertoires, and physical spaces; recruitment and retention; organizational structures; and academic, social, and professional integration, to name a few topic areas. Importantly, in this context, the term “integration” refers to the question of whether each person in our community is successfully connected to an academic program or professional context that richly supports his or her growth and whether each person is also connected in a personally meaningful social context that supports well-being. On this definition, the opposites of integration are alienation or isolation. We’ll be working to build out a broad set of possible recommendations over the summer, and we will dig into the work of prioritizing, vetting, and refining ideas with the community in the fall.

The full report “What We Learned from the Afternoon of Engagement” is available here.