Last March, outgoing Harvard President Drew Faust appointed John Silvanus Wilson Jr. as senior adviser and strategist to the president, charged with overseeing implementation of the recommendations of the Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging.

Faust accepted the task force report and outlined recommendations that she felt would move Harvard from being a place peopled by a diverse student body to one where students, faculty, staff, and other members of the Harvard community from various backgrounds feel truly at home, and able to work, grow, and explore opportunity while flourishing.

The Gazette recently talked with Wilson, the former president of Morehouse College, former head of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and former administrator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Wilson, who holds three Harvard degrees and took leave from the Board of Overseers to assume this role, discussed progress in implementing the task force recommendations and shared his thoughts on the broader national conversation about race and diversity.  


John Silvanus Wilson

GAZETTE: We spoke in March, with the release of the findings of the Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging and your appointment as senior adviser and strategist to the president. What has happened since then? Is your office up and running?

WILSON: Make no mistake, the mission to realize what the report calls “inclusive excellence” is underway. But it is important to remember that this diversity, inclusion, and belonging agenda features work that no university has gotten right to the point of being a recognized model for it. That is both an opportunity and an indication of how hard it is. It will always demand far more than any office or individual can manage alone.

In our case, think about it this way: Harvard University is 382 years old. For roughly 340 of those 382 years, with relatively few exceptions, the consumers, providers, and managers of the educational experience on this campus were the privileged sons of the New England aristocracy. About 40 years ago, stimulated by the Civil Rights Movement and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Harvard and hundreds of other colleges and universities began to stabilize a more diverse student body, featuring more women, students of color, and international students. Institutional awareness and recognition of other dimensions of student difference started emerging in the 1980s, too, as we also gradually began the process of hiring a more diverse faculty and staff.

Based on the reality — and untapped power — of all that change, it was only two years ago that President Faust courageously initiated the first faculty-led examination of whether there is more that we can and should do to harvest the fruits of the diversity we have experimented with for the past four decades. In other words, after 340 years of sameness and 40 years of increased variety, I was hired five months ago to help lead a more intentional effort at shifting an educational culture that, regarding inclusion and belonging, has remained largely unchanged and uninterrogated for 380 years.

This is huge and will take time, but we are undaunted by the enormity of the challenge. It is encouraging that President [Larry] Bacow agrees that Harvard cannot truly be Harvard until we confidently and measurably position everyone in our community to flourish. That is at the foundation of the task force report, and it is the cornerstone belief that led President Faust to charge the task force in the first place.

Let me give you a snapshot of some progress. Besides launching a process of staffing up, we have enlisted the help of a subset of the key people from all over Harvard who are working on the inclusion-and-belonging agenda in the Schools. We started meeting this summer, and we will meet regularly all year to bring to life the task force recommendations.

There is a special emphasis on the strategic plans and the Harvard-wide pulse survey. And we are constructing a dashboard to help track our progress toward meaningful accountability and the eventual institutionalization of this ongoing work.

I am especially pleased that President Bacow has met with the leadership for both of the interfaculty initiatives recommended by the task force. Their work is underway. Professors Vincent Brown and Mayra Rivera will co-chair the initiative on identity, politics, and culture. They will lead a group to conduct a more internal examination of whether different organizational structures and relationships between the many faculty teaching and researching in these areas might position us to be more creative, innovative, integrated, and productive. Their committee is in the process of being formed.

Professors Mahzarin Banaji, Khalil G. Muhammad, and Frank Dobbin will lead the second initiative, which was originally charged to bring lessons from organizational models outside of Harvard — including those in higher education, industry, and the military — as we consider our own practices and policies. President Bacow has given them latitude to possibly reframe the broader charge a bit, if necessary, even as they serve as an advisory body evaluating and suggesting to him potential options for action.

Among many other things I could mention, now that the term is underway, we are also in the early stages of seeking meetings with various students and alumni to gather viewpoints on what success looks like from different perspectives. This work might also reveal where meaningful common ground exists.

GAZETTE: President Faust, in accepting the task force’s report, highlighted particular action areas, including $250,000 for you to administer as grants to support the development of innovative ideas to foster inclusion and belonging. Has that grant fund been created? What kinds of programs have received or do you expect to receive awards?

WILSON: We are working to generate a final frame for that now. Among the action items we’re prioritizing is choosing the best way to stimulate investment by the entire community. With that in mind, I really like the impact of the President’s Administrative Innovation Fund, and that might be a model for us. No matter what we ultimately decide, this first year may be different from what follows. That’s only because informed experimentation may be the key to our ability to root and sustain the change we seek.

Ultimately, these funds will be used to empower the Harvard community to create and sustain belonging efforts that enable community members to thrive. A primary challenge in a complex environment like ours is that excellent efforts and initiatives can go unrecognized and be even harder to scale. I know from the research and looking to other institutions that there is profound need among diversity, inclusion, and belonging initiatives to repeatedly test, scale, and expand so that more of the community benefits from excellent practices and programs.

GAZETTE: There were several other recommendations that President Faust said the University would be moving forward on, including substantial funds for new faculty hires, steps to improve representation of different groups in symbols and spaces, training for managers in hiring and faculty as they design courses, and potential new academic areas, among others. Which of these do you see being most significant in bringing about the desired changes in campus culture, and how has progress on them been so far?

WILSON: It may be a cliché to answer this way, but they’re all vital. Any effort to change the culture has to be multifaceted. We have to simultaneously work the diversity, inclusion, and belonging aspects of the challenge. We have point people assigned to the symbols and space analysis and the clarification of staff training needs. And the two interfaculty initiatives will also play an important role.

Regarding new faculty hires, who teaches what and how the space in which they work is articulate with the values we’re looking to promote, it’s all pursuant to the new culture and sensibilities. With that said, it makes sense to put the faculty hiring challenge in context. The Harvard faculty was roughly 99 percent white and male through 1980, as I arrived for grad school here. That’s about three and a half centuries. It was really important to hire women and people of color onto the faculty using the same scrutiny and standards of excellence, even while expanding perspectives, the canon, and the curriculum in healthy ways.

That’s generally what happened. There has been no thumb on the scale. Thus, the funds targeting new faculty hires have been routed into the standard system for hiring faculty here. You want evidence that it’s working? While some may be only mildly impressed that today’s tenured faculty at Harvard is now 20 percent of color and 27 percent women, a more impressive indication of our readiness for the future is the tenure-track faculty, which, when I checked earlier this year, was 40 percent women and 32 percent of color. That is promising. And the new funding will only enhance it.

GAZETTE: Tell me a little bit more about the pulse survey.

WILSON: A pulse survey is by definition very brief. It’s basically a check on the pulse of the University. We’re working with our institutional research office, and it has a pretty good instrument designed for us. I am working with Professor Andrew Ho at the Graduate School of Education and a team of advisers from across the University to make sure we get useful data. No matter what you’re trying to improve, you need broad baseline data, and this pulse survey will provide that in an ongoing way. It is among the recommendations that the task force put some emphasis on.

GAZETTE: So, brief and easy? Something like five questions? Would you take it online?

WILSON: I think it’s 10 to 12 questions. You could do it in the time it takes you to brush your teeth or sing the National Anthem. And it will be the first ever all-campus inclusion and belonging survey.

GAZETTE: Most of the task force’s recommendations do not have deadlines. An exception are reports, due at the end of October, by deans and central administration leadership on plans at each of their units to advance belonging and inclusion. Do you have a status update of those reports, and do you expect the deadline to be met?

WILSON: I have checked in with each of the units from which we’re expecting plans. We expect the deadline to be met. We also expect that the plans will serve as a platform for our strategic thinking about optimizing the relationship between the Schools and the central administration. The task force offers robust recommendations that involve every facet of our University. I’m actually relieved and grateful that there are few deadlines, as this is a new frontier of work which will require new working relationships across our entire community. More important than any deadlines are better live lines of communication and cooperation across Harvard, in the spirit of our abiding “One Harvard” quest.

Here, the adage “building the plane as we fly it” is apt. Recognizing this, there will be moments in this journey where we will be flying low under the radar, diligently working to get a new process or effort right, and other times when we are soaring high for the entire community to see and engage. Varying the visibility feels necessary for such new work.

GAZETTE: How hard is this work the University has embarked upon?

WILSON: Doing hard things is a norm at Harvard. All of the truly valuable work being done here is challenging. The best people here are not distracted by the difficulty because they can usually sense or see important breakthroughs on the other side of the toil. This is no different. The task force report provides a great launching pad for our agenda and for our need to clarify our most effective institutional voice. This is a critical agency moment for Harvard. How we act and react is who we are.

GAZETTE: Do you detect any shifts or trends in the national conversation on diversity, belonging, and inclusion?

WILSON: Yes, for sure. Guided by my instinctive optimism and my sense of history, I have always been pretty confident that the majority of Americans think the steady yet often woefully slow movement toward more harmony across racial, gender, and identity lines is a positive, healthy, desirable thing. It has been a given for me that this widely shared definition of progress was at or toward the center of our nation’s narrative flow. But recently, the way many people think about diversity, inclusion, and belonging has been contextualized and influenced by viewpoints on the immigration debate, the rise of hate groups, and negative commentary toward women, people of color, and other minoritized groups. Such national conversations can have profound implications for the way we live and work together.

GAZETTE: Is it good to have those conversations?

WILSON: It’s always good to have conversations and to grow in conversation. It’s not always good to have the same conversation. The key is you have to listen to each other and hear each other. You have to learn and grow, too. And that doesn’t always happen.

GAZETTE: Many people might look at the last couple of years as being negative from the standpoint of advancing diversity, inclusion, and belonging nationally. But might an argument be made that we had to have this conversation, one way or another, because so many people, right or wrong, feel they’re being left out, left behind, that things are being taken from them?

WILSON: Many Americans are discomforted by so much of what’s going on in this country right now. Yet, ultimately, I’m grateful that these issues have come to the surface, because I believe right now there are lots of people in this country trying to figure out where we really stand on certain issues. There’s so much going on now that will reveal who we really are. That would not be happening were this kind of climate not upon us. So there is a sense that this is a necessary phase and a stage that you have to go through to become better, to become clearer about who we are and better at being who we are.

So, again, I have an instinctive optimism about the way these conversations are going to turn out, both nationally and institutionally. For a long time, I have believed this country and Harvard have been generally moving in the right direction, albeit slowly. I believe the diversity we started experimenting with half a century ago and began to stabilize 40 years ago has all been movement in the right direction for this institution.

I believe the Harvard we have now is closer to the Harvard that W.E.B. Du Bois imagined well over a century ago. I believe that we’ve been on the right pathway and we continue to be. Even in this uncertain time, I generally believe the same thing about America. We’ve been moving steadily toward becoming a better America. What we see now is some debate about our direction. And it’s better to have the privilege of debating and conversing, even if it’s sometimes charged. I’ll take it, because it could be worse, like small-scale physical conflict or a full-fledged war. That’s not unimaginable when so many people often seem more theological than logical, which is what we see so much of today.

GAZETTE: Do you see your work in this area potentially being affected by the outcome of the admissions lawsuit involving Asian American applicants?

WILSON: The lawsuit is not being brought by Asian American applicants. Period. This plaintiff is actually quite clear about leveraging the Asian American community to reach his true goal of eliminating the ability of colleges and universities across the country to admit a diverse student body by considering race as one factor among many other admissions criteria.

Will we be affected? Absolutely not and absolutely. First, no matter what happens with that case, Harvard must do a better job enabling everyone in this community to flourish. Minimally, we need to ensure that the reasons why some may be unable to flourish here are not tied to what some reasonably refer to as our institutional structure, culture, or character. So, we need to be better no matter how the diversity pendulum swings.

Yet, it’s pretty easy to see how this case could eventually shrink or reverse the hard-earned diversity we now have. That means there’s a great deal at stake and we could absolutely be affected. I simply do not think we are a better University or country if this plaintiff is successful. President Bacow recently said this to senior staff: “Diversity is a pathway to excellence. One can never hope to achieve true excellence by sampling from only a fraction of the distribution of talent.” I agree.