When Charles Murray came to Harvard to speak about the controversial findings of his 1994 book, The Bell Curve, which linked low African-American test scores to genetics, the Black Students Association organized a spirited protest on the steps of Widener Library. The BSA brought social psychologist Jeff Howard, president of the Efficacy Institute, to campus. In a moving and memorable lecture, Howard talked to us about achievement and success, about working together on our problem sets and sharing our lecture notes, about going to office hours and getting to know our professors, about just how very capable we all were.
These organizations and events allowed us to experience racism without internalizing it.
We worry about the potential negative effects of “I, Too, Am Harvard” on the university, alumni-giving and Harvard’s reputation. Most concerning are the likely effects on recruitment. There is no doubt that most Harvard alums had overwhelmingly positive experiences, microaggressions included. The possibility that talented students might veer away from Harvard out of a fear that they will face an overtly racist environment is most troubling.
Microaggressions are not unique to Harvard or to the Ivy League. African-American students at universities all over the country confront hostile situations in which they feel they must prove that they belong and that they earned their coveted acceptance letter.
It is clear that we need better ways of understanding the many different kinds of diversity on college campuses. Universities must think creatively and be innovative in addressing the unique issues that each new cohort of students faces. Harvard is not the only campus that must address these issues in order to create more positive experiences for all students. More open conversations about race, class, gender, sexual orientation, disability and regional identity—just to name a few—are necessary. It is the charge of the universities to make sure that these conversations happen.
The creators and participants of “I, Too, Am Harvard” showed extraordinary courage. Now Harvard must show equal courage and conviction in taking the steps necessary to create a more inclusive campus. College is a time of uncommon intellectual and personal growth. It must also be a time when students face different types of diversity and learn the profound meanings of inclusivity, acceptance and tolerance. All students have the right to feel that they, too, are Harvard.
Allyson Hobbs is an assistant professor in the department of history at Stanford University. She graduated magna cum laude with an A.B. in social studies in 1997. Florencia Greer Polite, M.D., is an assistant professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at Louisiana State University. She graduated cum laude with a B.S. in biology in 1997.