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A questionable approach to confront campus bigotry

Melvin B. Miller
A questionable approach to confront campus bigotry
“Like, why would I want to spend my time trying to change campus bigots.” (Photo: Dan Drew)

In speaking about an alumnus of Harvard University it is sometimes said in jest, “you can always tell a Harvard man, but you can’t tell him much.” This comment refers to the aura of self-confidence and assurance that seems to go along with the Harvard bachelor’s degree. This attitude, sometimes approaching hauteur, is fairly general and is not limited to graduates based on race or family wealth and status, and undoubtedly now includes female alumnae. Now “#ITooAmHarvard” plans to change attitudes at the institution.

Since students come to Harvard from all over the world and from different races and ethnic groups, it is expected that they will have an extensive variety of attitudes and opinions. It has never been the responsibility and objective of Harvard to create from this heterogeneous student body homologous graduates. What is hoped for are thoughtful and competent alumni who live purposeful lives in an increasingly more cosmopolitan world.

Harvard’s intellectually vibrant academic environment will undoubtedly stimulate differences of opinion and sometimes provoke conflicts. However, an individual’s personal views, even if wrong, are expected to be inviolable. They become subject to question only when they serve as the basis for inappropriate action in the public square.

Apparently unmindful of this reservation, a number of black students have launched a campaign entitled “#ITooAmHarvard” to oppose attitudes on campus that they perceive to be racially hostile. The campaign against racial stereotypes has gained quick attention in the social media. While they have cited a number of insulting comments, the gist of the unsavory remarks is that the black students have been admitted for the university to comply with affirmative action goals and they are otherwise not qualified.

By stepping forward, the students involved in the campaign have assumed the unenviable position of the “thought police.” They should know that the offending white students have no factual support for their comments. It is generally known that the students admitted to Harvard with the lowest qualifications are the so-called legacies — the children of alumni and generous donors. Also, the member of the class of 2013 with the highest grades, equivalent to a valedictorian, was a black student.

The campaign seems to be an excessive reaction to the flippant remarks of some bigoted students. Indeed, there are times when a major response is necessary to oppose an inappropriate action. In 1991, a Kirkland House student hung a Confederate flag in her window and refused to remove it. The administration failed to take appropriate action because they viewed the student’s act as an expression of free speech. However, after a black student decided to respond by hanging a Nazi swastika in her window, the concept of free speech was quickly redefined. Both flags were soon removed.

There is a way, when necessary, to take remedial action at Harvard. More recently a Harvard professor asserted that the demands of minority students were responsible for grade inflation. When black students demanded that he provide supporting evidence he was unable to do so. That assertion has never resurfaced.

One proposal to remedy the problem is for Harvard to establish a multiracial center. That approach was tried without success in the 1970s. Those students who most needed the intervention failed to participate. However, in 1981 the late Peter Gomes, the African American Pusey Minister of Harvard’s Memorial Church, helped to establish the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations.

Under the leadership of Professor S. Allen Counter, the Harvard Foundation has brought to Harvard prominent leaders of government, science and the arts from all around the world to visit with students. Guests of the Harvard Foundation have been so prominent that they have also attracted the attention of the Boston media.

Harvard students are already involved in the Foundation. Multiracial members of student organizations serve as members of the Student Advisory Committee. The Harvard Foundation creates a strong presence for students of many races on campus. Those students with bigoted notions will have to be left to the process of maturation.

The editor is a Harvard alumnus.

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