"Diversity" Meeting at Harvard
Noel Ignatiev

I recently spent the bigger (not better) part of a day at a meeting at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The meeting was supposed to address issues of diversity, and was called in response to a continuing campaign by students, who had earlier in the month blocked both ends of the street where the Ed School is located and covered the walls with posters demanding an increase in faculty and students of color.

There were maybe a hundred people at the meeting, out of a student body of nine hundred; there were doctoral candidates and one-year master's degree students, and some faculty members. About half were white. After a short plenary session, the body broke down into smaller groups organized around Curriculum, Student Life, Admissions and Financial Aid, and other interests. I attended the group on Admissions and Financial Aid.

In the days before Civil Rights people used to say that it was easy to get on the ballot in the South but hard to vote, whereas in the North anyone could vote but it was hard to get on the ballot. The School of Education is Harvard's "North." Most of the University makes no pretense to democracy: Can anyone imagine students at the Law School telling their professors which courses are required and what will be on the exams? By contrast, students at the Ed School take part in virtually every committee. But none of that participation makes any real difference. The administration determines the questions, which the students can answer however they want. But some questions are never on the agenda.

This meeting was a perfect example. At the group I attended, it quickly emerged that the main reason for the low proportion of "students of color" was the lack of financial aid, and that the Ed School simply didn't have enough money to meet the need. One person, a professor, pointed out that the reason for this is the Harvard Corporation's policy of making each school in the University responsible for raising its own money. Since the Business, Medicine, and Law Schools raise their money from investment counselors and high-priced doctors and lawyers, they are many times richer than the Ed School whose alumni are schoolteachers. He denounced the policy as "obscene," and proposed a University-wide task force to demand equitable allocation of money among the different schools. He said that the rich schools would never voluntarily share any of their booty and that they would have to be forced. (That professor has a righteous history: he sided with the students in the 1970 Strike.) I followed up by suggesting that instead of blocking Ed School buildings, students ought to march on the Business School.

What happened next was interesting. Everyone in the room indicated by smiles and nods that they agreed -- and then dropped the matter entirely when someone reminded them that they were expected to return to the large meeting with "practical proposals." They then proceeded to spend the rest of the meeting time talking about the composition of various committees, procedures for placing representatives on them, and so forth.

The only sense I can make out of that behavior is that they had decided that the one thing that would have the greatest effect was too large to be undertaken, so they would fall back on proposals that everyone must have known would not change the situation fundamentally.

At the plenary session each of the groups made its report, and predictably each of the reports put forward proposals which individually and as a whole threatened nothing essential. From what I could see, the proposals that attracted the greatest attention were for the dean to make an annual report on diversity (he was present and agreed), an annual diversity retreat, and an additional person in the office of student affairs (the last two dependent of course on budget considerations). The report from the group I sat in on barely mentioned the problem of the allocation of money within Harvard as a whole. For me, the only bright spot came when one of the other people in the group--another abolitionist-- stood up and amended the report to include the proposal for a University-wide task force on money. The meeting ended in self-congratulation, "spoiled"only by several Afro-American students demanding, as a gesture of good faith, the immediate implentation of those recommendations that could be immediately implemented. When asked to specify which they meant, they were unable to do so.

Rarely have I seen so much decency and good intent squandered. Once again Harvard had managed to do what it has been doing for three-and-a-half centuries: absorb discontent.

Thank you so much for your Rant. I am an alumnus of Harvard College, Class of 1974, and I think you really put your finger on THE major problem that Harvard has: the unequal distribution of endowment. And, I remember only too well, their absorbtion of discontent procedures during the Vietnam protest days, and how they would dig in their heels with riot police when any realistic change was in the offing.

We live in the wilds of Alaska ... I a fly a little plane around rural Alaska for the US Census Bureau. We are a mixed race family, Race Traitors to the core! Thank god for the internet.


"Your piece on diversity is a work of art... it just goes to show you that some people can sell anything... and some people will buy anything... (they sell buffalo chips in montana) try Christ"