Blacks in Crimson
While Harvard has surpassed many other institutions of its size in its demonstrated commitment 7to student diversity, the university is still woeful in its representation of African Americans on the faculty.By Ronald Roach
The recent avalanche of magazine stories devoted to Dr. Henry Louis Gates and Harvard’s Afro-Americans studies department, gives the impression that Black faculty have made gains at the nation’s most prestigious institution. But despite the university’s high-profile commitment to Afro-American studies, visitors to the campus would be hard pressed to find Black professors teaching in other university departments.When it comes to diversity, Harvard can tout an exemplary record on recruiting, admitting, and graduating minority students at several of its schools — most notably the law school and the college. But despite three decades of significant growth in minority student enrollment, minority representation on the faculties of Harvard remains among the lowest in the Ivy League.Excluding the law school and the Afro-American studies department, Black faculty numbers are critically low. Among the arts and sciences 1,179 faculty members (excluding faculty who hold appointments in other schools) who include the Afro-American studies faculty, only 15 are African American. Of the eight total male faculty with senior status, six are in the department of Afro-American studies — as is the lone senior Black female, Dr. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. (tk: Figures to come from Dartmouth or one of the other Ivy Leagues) The issue garnered national attention in 1992, when Derrick Bell, a once tenured Harvard Law School professor, staged a highly visible protest over the school’s lack of minority women on the faculty. Bell, in refusing to return from a two-year protest leave of absence over the law school’s failure to hire a woman of color, prompted the university to fire him.
The Student Commitment Since arriving at Harvard in 1991,the university’s president, Dr. Neil L. Rudenstine, has forcefully spoken out about the importance of diversity — especially among the student body. He has written articles and a report that traces the history of diversity as a value at Harvard to the mid-19th century. This early commitment to diversity took root at Harvard, he says, when school officials recognized that as an emerging national institution the university would need to admit students with varying backgrounds from around the country rather than exclusively from wealthy families in the New England region.The kind of diversity these post-civil war era educators were talking about, however, largely concerned an ethnic and regional mix of White males. The diversity which the university has been striving to achieve in the latter part of the 20th century has included a much richer racial and gender mix.“I believe that student diversity contributes powerfully and directly to the quality of education in colleges and universities,” Rudenstine wrote in the Harvard University Gazette in 1996. Under his leadership, however, Harvard’s African American enrollment has remained fairly consistent. In 1998, according to data filed by the university with the federal government, Harvard enrolled a total of 554 Black males, and 680 Black females. Together, these students comprised 7 percent of the university-wide student body (see BI The Numbers, pg 34, for more enrollment statistics).With respect to Black student retention, the university fares exceptionally well — which, according to admissions officer Dave Evans, is no surprise considering the high caliber of students who win admission. More than 95 percent of all African American undergraduates get their degrees within five years, he says.“And approximately 90 percent graduate in four years,” he adds.Yet, as impressive as these numbers are, Evans admits the commitment to diversity, even at the student level, is largely championed by a handful of influential leaders on the campus.“There are some personalities who are committed to it,” he says. “Rudenstine and others.”But he warns that all of this could easily change once these personalities retire or leave the campus for other reasons if more alumni and others are not diligent about staying the course. “Keeping these ideas going won’t happen by themselves,” Evans says. “People have to realize that freedom is not free. To bring down peaches, you’ve got to shake the tree.”While the efforts of admissions and recruitment officials have sustained diversity among the student body, the institution’s commitment doesn’t stop there. Coinciding with Rudenstine’s tenure at Harvard has been an additional effort to educate undergraduates on the value of diversity. Archie C. Epps III, Harvard’s dean of students since 1970, says all students receive a handbook on race relations and freshman admits are required to read essays on diversity before they enroll. Shortly after arriving at Harvard, freshmen are required to attend meetings to discuss these essays.“One of our goals is to help students develop expertise in the complexities of race relations,” Epps says.So, what type of environment does this yield for African American and other students of color? “Harvard works for those who make it work,” says Theodore Nathaniel “Teddy” Maynard, an African American junior majoring in Afro-American studies. He came to Harvard from the prestigious Roxbury Latin School, where he was a scholarship student and one of few African Americans. It prepared him, both academically and socially, for his Harvard experience, he says. Maynard has found race relations at Harvard to be about the same as they are elsewhere in the country. It has also been his observation that students are generally left to create their own support systems, and must be self-motivated to succeed because the university is not overly solicitous to the needs of any specific group.“I was prepared and I knew how to make it work,” he says. “[Harvard’s] not for someone who is not accustomed to making their own community.”Tyrone Latin, a 1989 Harvard graduate who currently works as a class manager at the Harvard Foundation, says the campus environment appears to be more sensitive to the needs of students of color today than it was when he was an undergraduate. He adds that efforts by the admissions staff to involve more alumni of color in recruitment efforts are complimented by the activities of his colleagues to cultivate more African American alumni as financial contributors and volunteers to the institution.“Harvard has struggled with this for a while and is trying to address it,” he says. “There is still a long way to go.” The Faculty CommitmentOn the subject of faculty diversity, Rudenstine proudly points to the Afro-American studies department, which in recent years has attracted the some of the nation’s leading Black scholars. “I think it’s probably the case that [Dr. Henry Louis Gates] has been the driver of so much of the recruiting activity,” Rudenstine says, adding that Gates has also looked at departments beyond Afro-American studies.“There are some people, like Evelyn Higginbotham, who could be full-time in history, if she wanted. But she’s attracted to Afro-Am, and so enjoys the relationship.”In response to concerns that Harvard is sorely lagging in hiring Black and other non-White faculty, Rudenstine says the root of the dilemma lies with the low numbers of Blacks and other minorities earning Ph.D.s in science and certain social science disciplines.“We have to keep going back to the still really unfortunate problem of the fact that only two percent of Ph.D.s in the United States — if you exclude clinical psychology and education — awarded annually are to African Americans, and that’s just a tiny number of people,” Rudenstine says.In recent years, Harvard has participated in a Mellon Foundation program to identify and support minority students interested in pursuing Ph.D.s. Prior to coming to Harvard, Rudenstine served as president of the Mellon Foundation. But critics, such as the editors at the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, have questioned whether Harvard’s faculty recruitment strategies prevent its various schools from considering a broader pool of candidates than they currently do. African Americans are perhaps best represented among Harvard faculty at the law school. Yet, even this diversity has come at a hefty price.For more than 20 years, Derrick Bell railed against Harvard law school for practicing an excessively elitist faculty hiring program. In his 1994 book, Confronting Authority: Reflections of an Ardent Protester, which details the protest that led to him losing his tenured position, Bell wrote that the “standards for hiring and promoting faculty at Harvard Law School (and in fairness, at almost every major law school in the country) erect almost unassailable barriers of class and race. Bearing little correlation to effective teaching or significant scholarship, the criteria’s most uniform effect is to produce a group of law professors whose backgrounds, education, interests, and writing most closely resemble those of the wealthy White men who have dominated law faculties since their beginning.”Critics of the law school’s hiring practices have quieted down since Harvard hired Lani Guinier, a former University of Pennsylvania law professor and well-known civil rights advocate, to a full-time tenured position on the law school faculty early in 1998 — more than five years after Bell’s departure. Guinier, the first Black woman to achieve such a feat, gained national attention in 1993 when President Clinton withdrew her nomination for Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights after failing to defend her writings and statements.At the time she was named to the Harvard law school faculty, however, Guinier was hardly a Harvard outsider. Her father, the late Ewart Guinier, was once chair of the department of Afro-American studies. Whether Harvard’s other schools exercise excessively elitist faculty recruitment and hiring practices is debatable. One critical view is that Harvard schools and departments recruit too exclusively from other elite colleges and universities. An opposing perspective says that being among the best requires that Harvard schools narrow their faculty searches to these elite institutions. “I take the long view, not the short view. I’m not worried about the numbers. I know Harvard well enough to know that everything takes a very long time here, a very long time. Harvard has its own way of doing business,” says Reverend Dr. Peter Gomes, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and minister of the university church. “So I don’t think the numbers are inconsistent with the ambition.“The ambition is always ahead of your achievement,” he adds. “I think you have to simply accept the fact that diversity here is not in itself a goal. Diversity is a means to a goal at Harvard, and that goal is excellence.”
— Cheryl D. Fields contributed to this story.
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