Ali Asani.

Ali Asani, professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Religion and Cultures, speaks with the Gazette about the new task force he’s leading.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

Harvard ponders its symbols and spaces

long read

New working group will look at how to use them to foster campus inclusion, leader says

Harvard President Drew Faust established the Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging in 2016. In her charge to the new group, Faust said, “To realize the community’s full promise and to foster the personal and intellectual transformation at the heart of our mission, we must also work affirmatively and collectively to advance a culture of belonging.”

The task force was formed to foster a sense of belonging for all members of Harvard’s diverse community. Last May, the group issued a final report that included eight recommendations, one of which was to make the University’s values statement and its public art more inclusive.

Based on the report’s findings, Harvard today announced creation of the Working Group on Symbols and Spaces of Engagement at Harvard College. Its mission is: “To examine how our campus spaces, symbols, and programming advance an inclusive learning environment. The group will deliver a guiding document that: explores how Harvard’s history, current spaces, and symbols impact the experiences of our diverse student body; evaluates current programming and training that enable students to engage with difference; and identifies opportunities to create new programs and spaces for programming that promote engagement and dialogue among and across our diverse student body.”

The group will include students, faculty, and staff, and will be chaired by Ali Asani, professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Religion and Cultures. The Gazette spoke with Asani ’77, AM ’81, Ph.D. ’84, to learn more about the work ahead.


Ali Asani

GAZETTE: Tell us a little bit about the working group, what the charge is, and what you hope to accomplish.

ASANI: The working group is charged with evaluating symbols and spaces of engagement in the College. One of Harvard’s many strengths is the diversity of its community. A central goal of the College’s educational mission is to encourage students to engage with this diversity. Such engagement can not only be transformative, personally and intellectually, but also provides a skill that is critical to living in a nation, indeed a world, marked by difference. The working group will examine how well we are doing in fulfilling this mission and where there is room for improvement.

There’s a sense among some that at present we seem to leave engagement with diversity to chance, hoping that people will in due course of the time they spend at the College engage with others who are different from themselves, not just in terms of visible markers of difference (such as race, ethnicity, etc.) but also in terms of worldviews, life experiences, socio-economic status, and so on. This group will be looking at ways in which we can use structures, spaces, and activities that will encourage engagement across different groups of people. This is important since we are living in a society — and a world — which is increasingly polarized across differences. Such polarizations exist here on campus, too, though they may not always be explicit.

GAZETTE: Is the type of engagement you are looking for not happening on campus currently? Or is it more accurate to say that it is not happening enough?

ASANI: We have evidence that this is indeed happening, but perhaps not sufficiently. This is certainly a topic that the working group needs to discuss and investigate. Classrooms, extracurricular activities, and the Houses all play important roles in fostering many opportunities for student engagement with diversity. They are also spaces where students explore aspects of their identities they have not had the opportunity to engage with previously.

For example, some students may not have grown up in environments where they encountered other people like themselves. It is natural for these students who are discovering facets of their ethnic, religious, cultural, and racial identity as part of the College experience to want to explore those facets within affinity groups. To explore and celebrate these identities is indeed commendable and necessary. In addition, we should also be thinking about getting to know people who are different from ourselves. We should be striving for balance between engaging with difference and across difference.

GAZETTE: What do you see as the eventual outcome of this process?

ASANI: Knowing people who are very different from yourself is an ongoing process that is crucial to creating a culture of respect and self-knowledge. What I am hoping for the College to develop is an ethos where students come to respect and celebrate one another precisely for their differences. In this regard, the process is not about papering over differences, but to use these differences as opportunities for education.

“The lesson that I would hope students would learn as part of their Harvard education is that it’s very dangerous to characterize other people using a single-dimensional categorization.”

GAZETTE: You mentioned the polarization we are seeing across the country. Do you think we are seeing that on campus, too, or just a lack of engagement among different groups of people?

ASANI: I think we are seeing both. We see people are retreating into their own communities, engaging only with people like themselves. We can see such tendencies on campus. For example, the central concern regarding final clubs were policies that led to certain students excluding other students from their social networks, determining who belonged and who did not.

GAZETTE: You mentioned diversity, and that is a word we hear a lot. I wonder if you could tell us what the word diversity means to you, and how it pertains to this group?

ASANI: For me, diversity is a complex concept, complicated by fluidity. Each one of us has diverse identities. However, we are very often seen by others through the lens of only one of these identities. In certain circumstances, a person may also choose to identify with one aspect of their identity. But in a different set of circumstances, the same person may choose to identify with a different aspect. In addition, we are also surrounded by people with many identities — ethnic, racial, linguistic, socio-economic, political, aptitudes, and so on. It’s important that each individual engage with and appreciate different aspects of their own identity, as well as the ways in which these identities inform one another through their intersections. Similarly, it is important that they are open to engaging with other people and their multifaceted, yet whole, identities.

The lesson that I would hope students would learn as part of their Harvard education is that it’s very dangerous to characterize other people using a single-dimensional categorization. The single-dimensional categorization of human beings strips people of their humanity. I would wish for students to realize that as individuals we are actually amazingly complex entities. Exploring the complexities of other human beings is crucial, and getting to know others for who they are — and not for the labels they or others have pinned on them — remains paramount.

GAZETTE: What motivates you to want to play such a significant role in increasing engagement among diverse groups of people here at Harvard?

ASANI: One of the reasons I agreed to chair this working group was because of my own experiences here at Harvard as an undergraduate, a graduate student, and then as a member of the faculty. I’ve seen Harvard change over the past three decades. When I came here as a freshman, in 1973, Harvard was a very different place. Back then, the term diversity referred to students coming from different parts of the United States rather than socio-economic, racial, and religious diversity. We also had a campus with a history of gender segregation, and a housing system where students were selected into particular Houses through an interview process, which led to certain Houses being identified with certain types of students. And I vividly recall how stark those differences between Houses were.

I have witnessed the gradual dismantling of these structures of segregation. The randomization of undergraduate housing has really improved the situation, as there is much more mixing of the student population. The intake of students is also far more diverse than ever it used to be. It has been great to witness Harvard as an institution address the issues of diversity more rigorously.

As a faculty member, I also faced the reality that there weren’t very many people like myself, but that is changing as well. Even as a faculty member, I remember many instances of being excluded and even disrespected. With this working group, I have the opportunity to discuss with fellow committee members, with students, with faculty, with staff: “How can we make sure things are getting better?” It’s wonderful to be able to draw on my own personal experiences and remembering how, back then, I so longed to be accepted for who I was.

GAZETTE: Could you tell us about your personal background?

ASANI: I’m originally from Kenya. My family has been in Kenya for 200 years, but when I first came here people would ask where I was from and when I said “Kenya,” they would say, “Well, you don’t look African. You couldn’t be from Kenya. You must be Indian.” I would then tell them that, up until that point, I hadn’t been to India. In other words, I learned early on that people had a certain idea of what it meant to be African. I would then tell people that I was Asian, which is the term we used in Kenya for people of South Asian origin, and people would tell me I wasn’t Asian either. I found that all of my identities were being rejected by other people due to their own preconceived notions of identity. Having experienced some of that discrimination here at Harvard, I feel that I do understand what people go through, as it’s very personal to me, not just theoretical. And my experiences were not that long ago. It’s not ancient history.

GAZETTE: What can you tell us about the group itself, and the other members you will be working with?

ASANI: Dean Rakesh Khurana has selected a group of individuals coming from many different backgrounds and experiences. We have a diverse group comprised of faculty, students, and administrators who, knowing what I know about their work and their backgrounds, are committed to this issue of engaging across differences. I am very much looking forward to meeting them and collaborating with them on this important project.

GAZETTE: You have such an extensive background in religious study. How do you see differences in religious beliefs playing a role in this work?

ASANI: Harvard is marked by great religious diversity. There are many different faith communities here. There is an outstanding student-run interfaith group which brings together people from different religious traditions on a regular basis.

Coming to know people from different faith traditions is important to clear stereotypes and misconceptions. Statistics have shown, for example, that most Americans have never met a Muslim. But, of course, we know there are many issues surrounding Islamophobia which I feel are deeply embedded in the politics of the nation. I have personally encountered such phobias in Harvard students who, it is obvious, are unaware of their own bigotry. You see it in the kinds of questions they ask. One realizes that these phobias are a result of socialization — through the media, lack of positive exposure, etc. Anti-Semitism is also something that is the result of socialization. The list goes on and on.

The media constantly bombards all of us with negative images of people who are supposedly different from “mainstream” Americans, and this is very dangerous. The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding issued a report recently analyzing the U.S. media, and it stated that the predominant image of Muslims on major news networks was as criminals. It stands to reason that those negative images that surround us really do impact our students. We need to build a community here that is sensitive to the viewpoints of others.

GAZETTE: How do you see the arts playing a role in this?

ASANI: The arts can play a very important role since they are emotive and rely on aesthetics. The arts have the ability to connect people in creative and lasting ways. For example, one can learn of this effect by seeing a stage show here at Harvard called “Ghungroo.” It began years ago as an activity mostly for students of South Asian origin, but over time has grown to encompass a variety of ethnic groups, all of them learning different art forms and engaging with each other in ways that may not have come about otherwise. When you look at the show now, it’s really multiethnic since students invite their friends to participate, making the entire experience more colorful and inclusive.

Cultural Rhythms” is another wonderful example of how people come together and celebrate their diversities. The arts have an extraordinary way of cutting across differences, since they appeal to such a wide range of people. The imagination and creativity involved transports people into different realms. I have seen lasting bonds created between students involved in these activities. The arts unite them, and they find they have much more in common than they realized. I will be excited in exploring further how the arts can not only be instruments of knowledge but can also be instruments of engagement.

GAZETTE: What are you most hopeful for, or most looking forward to with this group?

ASANI: I hope this will be an opportunity to engage actively with students. They really are at the epicenter of this endeavor, for they are the greatest beneficiaries. It is my hope that through dialogues and other forms of feedback we will begin getting ideas from students on how we can deepen engagement with difference. Judging from the few students I have talked with, there’s a great deal of interest in the mission of this working group. I am also looking forward to getting to know and collaborating with my colleagues on the working group, particularly the students, and learning from their insightful contributions.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.