Under Review Episode III: The Presidential Taskforce

In Episode 3 of Under Review, hosts Matteo Wong and Olivia Oldham try to understand what makes a diversity review successful — and what, exactly, defines success — by looking at the most important diversity review at Harvard from recent years.



In Episode 3 of Under Review, hosts Matteo Wong and Olivia Oldham try to understand what makes a diversity review successful — and what, exactly, defines success — by looking at the most important diversity review at Harvard from recent years. Listen and subscribe on Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.


OGO: Previously, on Under Review

Sylvester Monroe: the traditional Harvard just isn't my Harvard, the Harvard of my experience has been three years of a totally Black existence.

Donald Barfield: we wanted to try to get as deep an understanding of the experience, you know, of all the students really, so that we could kind of understand

Florence Houn: I do recall the report coming out, and I think the feeling was that nothing was going to happen, other than the issue was going to be Harvardized, meaning making it an academic, an academic topic or issue that could be further studied and discussed and discoursed about

Donald Barfield: It's worth only three minutes worth of anybody's time, as far as I'm concerned, you know. The rankings of each group would be exactly what I would expect to see

Hilda M. Jordan: as the world is realizing the long history of police brutality that has plagued the United States and particularly the Black community in the US, right. We're fighting it right on this campus that's supposed to be the beacon of privilege and elitism

President Lawrence s. Bacow: “Here in Harvard Yard, we must embrace diversity in every possible dimension”

OGO: It should come as little surprise that Harvard, one of the world’s leading research institutions, approaches problems within its walls by researching them. For concerns over racism and inclusion, that means further study through a diversity review.

clip of MNW and OGO reading review names

MNW: In our first two episodes, we looked in-depth at some specific diversity reviews, from 1980 ranging all the way to the past few years. But how, exactly, do these reviews fit together — in Harvard’s vision, in the eyes of students, or just as documents? Are Harvard’s diversity efforts typical of a university or similar institutions? How do they compare to diversity reviews at corporations? Staring at all these documents and events made us feel, sometimes, like we were trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle with no reference image and missing pieces. But during our reporting, as we looked for corner and edge pieces, we kept getting pointed back to one particular, and particularly consequential, review:

OGO: The Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging — a two-year committee of more than 60 members, chaired by Professors Danielle Allen and Archon Fung, complete with community conversations, discussions, and workshops. And its final product, released in March of 2018: a high-production, 82-page report, with carefully designed pages — including a consistent color palette of primary colors — Black and white photos of impassioned professors speaking at workshops, and standard brochure shots of students, staff, and faculty laughing or deep in conversation with one another.

OGO: Former University President Drew Faust, in September 2016, gave the task force the massive charge of answering “questions about institutional values and goals for what we can contribute to and learn from one another to advance the work of inclusive excellence.” The Task Force was implemented to explore these questions on a University-wide scale. It would include college students, graduate students, professors, administrators, custodial workers, tech support, and staff on every level. And, in the years sense, the task force has been the core, guiding framework for the University on a wide range of diversity and inclusion efforts.

OGO: I’m Olivia Oldham,

MNW: and I’m Matteo Wong. You’re listening to Under Review, a podcast from the Harvard Crimson’s magazine, Fifteen Minutes, in which we’re exploring what we call the Harvard diversity review. This week, we’re exploring one of the largest diversity reviews Harvard has ever undertaken, and the review currently driving much of Harvard’s policies on race and inclusion: The Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging. What did it achieve? Who has it helped — and who has it neglected?

Segment 1

Christopher Hopson: So there was a, there's a bus that came to pick up, those of us who were in Harvard Square, and we went there. And, you know, it was a, it was like a big conference room, there were a lot of, you know, big round tables, and everyone's sitting around. And I think if I remember correctly, there were three undergrads on the entire Task Force.

OGO: Christopher Hopson was a sophomore when he joined the Presidential Task Force — one of very few undergraduates, though it was actually seven, not three. Professor Danielle Allen had personally asked him to join; Hopson was the co-chair of Inclusion and Belonging for the Black Students Association, so he already had some interest in the issues the Task Force was dealing with. Hopson went to several of the Task Force discussion sessions.

Hopson: They distributed us at tables with, you know, staff, faculty. So each little each little table was, was a diverse group of folks from different parts of the university. [...] They put a couple of questions to the room and then said, you know, can you discuss these in your table groups? And, I mean, I remember like, just, some of them were about, you know, what have been your experiences with inclusion and belonging on campus? What are things that you've heard your peers, and your colleagues talk about regarding these issues?

OGO: These questions were just the tip of the iceberg. The Task Force set their research around four main areas: one, to understand the quote-unquote ‘demographic realities’ at Harvard — in other words, representation and diversity in numbers. Two, to explore the varying, day-to-day experiences of inclusion or exclusion of members of Harvard’s community. Three, ‘academic resources’: things like course offerings and other ways of learning about or researching ‘diversity’. And four, Harvard’s organizational structures, from the office of diversity and inclusion, to its various deans, to its students organizations, and how they can better work together.

MNW: A tall order. How could one group of people, no matter how large and with how much expertise, produce comprehensive and specific findings in all of those areas?

OGO: To their credit, the co-chairs had a clear and methodical way of going about their work. Over the course of a year and four months, the whole Task Force met eleven times. The co-chairs met weekly; the subcommittees, monthly. They held 16 workshops across the University. If the Task Force was anything, it was meticulous. We reached out to around 15 of the professors and faculty on the task force, but only one person agreed be to interviewed

MNW: In comparison, the 1980 study of race relations — a group of students and administrators tasked by then-Dean of Students Archie Epps to study and find ways to improve the experiences of nonwhite students at Harvard, which we dove into last episode — sound almost amateur. They brought on a couple of professors as experts, but undergrads and graduate students led the charge. I mean, they had a gov concentrator do the statistical analysis. How did such a meticulous, methodical diversity review as the Presidential Task Force come to be?

OGO: In Faust’s charge, she vaguely wrote that “recent events both here and elsewhere have reminded us” that Harvard is far from where it wants to be on diversity. One thing the report says is that diversity in education lags behind the ‘corporate world’, and that Harvard needs to catch up. In another part of the report, it references “I, Too, Am Harvard,” a campaign led by mostly Black students in 2014 to amplify their experiences of Harvard, which often included exclusion and racism.

MNW: Right, we mentioned this in the last episode. The campaign seems to really have set the background for a lot of conversations about race in the past seven years. Kimiko Matsuda-Lawrence, an undergraduate at the time, interviewed about 40 Black students about their experiences at Harvard. She and other students turned those into a play and social media campaign that gained national attention for shedding light on the marginalization and prejudice Black undergrads face on this campus. And, I’ll add, the title “I, Too, Am Harvard” is likely a reference to a protest put on by Black students in 2007 called “I Am Harvard.”

“I, Too, Am Harvard” canon

OGO: And, let’s not forget, Faust conceived of the Task Force in May 2016, just as Donald Trump began to gain traction in his bid for the White House.

MNW: So there were many different events pushing toward this diversity review. In some ways it’s the same as Epps in 1977, who wrote that no specific incident triggered the race relations report, even though we could kind of point to the racist Lampoon cover. But again, it’s difficult to compare the two — in 1980, thinking about race and racism was “novel” to Harvard’s white super-majority, but in 2016 those issues were front and center for all.

OGO: I will say that, like that Lampoon graphic, the “I, Too, Am Harvard” campaign seems especially important here. It actually prompted an earlier review committee in 2015 called the Harvard College Working Group on Diversity and Inclusion.

MNW: And, let me guess, that 2015 College Working Group was the direct cause for the presidential task force?

OGO: Yep. In their final report, the 2015 Working Group called for a University-wide Task Force, to address issues beyond their purview. The Working Group was by and for the college, not the University. But nonetheless a lot of the questions in the Working Group’s report came up again in the 2018 Presidential Task Force. Dorothy Villarreal was a student on the Collge Working Group.

Dorothy Villarreal: My name is Dorothy Villarreal. I am from Rio Grande Valley, Texas. And I went to Harvard and graduated in 2015.

OGO: Dorothy was asked in part to participate in the working group because of her experience leading Concilio Latino, one of the largest Latinx orgs on campus.

Dorothy: Our meetings were at 8am, on Friday, every week. Like from my junior year to my senior year. I'm a morning person, but you know, you had to trudge through the snow and like, you had to, like, you had to really be sure about your time and, you know, like, my Fridays weren't necessarily like an off day, like a lot of people had. But for me, you know, that kind of stuff didn't matter, because it felt like we were doing something really important.

OGO: Dorothy also says the students were not paid for their time.

Dorothy: And I think like ’65 is when we first admitted like our first like, Latino, like cohort. And the feeling of change being a very recent thing at Harvard was, was very real for me. And so I wanted to kind of help be a part of that.

OGO: I remember Monroe, who wrote the essay “Guest in a Strange House” in 1973 about his experience as a Black student at Harvard, saying that

Monroe: Beginning in the mid 60s, Harvard and a steadily growing group of Black students began feeling their way through a totally new experience

OGO: And Dorothy is gesturing toward something similar for Latinx students, that the 1960s and 1970s were the beginnings of even their presence at Harvard. And in 2014, when she joined this working group, diversity was not at all new, but inclusivity was still very far from being ideal. So Dorothy, decades later, still felt the need to support and fight for herself and her peers when given the opportunity, and be a part of that legacy that began in the 60s.

Dorothy: And being in my community, I had a lot of friends that felt very despondent about being at Harvard, that felt like they were at a place that didn't like them, didn't care for them, that had only brought them here to teach, you know, like our counterparts how to talk with people like us, which is not a good way to feel, right. Like, you don't ever want to go into a place and feel like you're being used because of your identity, right, you want to feel like you're contributing something, and that you're getting something in return.

OGO: As we talked about, at Harvard in the 1980s — and earlier — a lot of students felt that their identities were being used to diversify the school, and then they were being forgotten about once they arrived. Dorothy saw the same sentiment among her peers, and she saw the Working Group as an opportunity to undo that.

Villarreal: And it's this, like, dream that I'd always had to go to this school that, you know, like, when I was younger, we didn't even like, my family and I are from Mexico. So I didn't even know that it was pronounced Harvard, I thought it was like, 'Harvard.' I just had no idea what to expect, right. And so I go from a school where, you know, I'm like, first gen low income. And then I go into this, like, magical place. And like, people, parents have yachts and like, are wearing, you know, $1,000 jackets, and I've never even seen, you know, $1,000 in my life.

MNW: Dorothy was using the task force as a platform to voice her experience, one that might otherwise go unheard. She seems to be striking, in some ways, a similar chord as Hilda, who led the protests after the police violence the night of Yardfest in 2018.

Jordan: feeling it with every fiber of my body and starting to cry because I truly felt like I was just crying to the institution to have them care for us.

MNW: Both put an immense amount of effort into improving this institution for minorities. Except, Hilda was much more reserved about the University — admin was “an asset we had to balance,” she said, because she was making her voice heard from the outside. Whereas Dorothy, it sounds like, was trying to make change from within, learning to use the language of power.

OGO: What’s interesting is that, no matter how the students tried to express their needs to the University — either through official channels or with with activism — their voices got funneled into review committees. Which brings us back to the question we’ve been asking: is this normal, review after review after review? And more importantly, does it work?

Segment 2

MNW: In order to better understand the various iterations of the Harvard diversity review, and this presidential task force in particular, we wanted to take a step back and ask some experts about diversity reviews and task forces more broadly. Maybe the most basic question here is, what is the purpose of a diversity review? Why would Harvard, or any university, or a company for that matter, launch one? We wanted to go behind the scenes, to try to explore the review from as close to the point of view of a university administrator as we could get.

Smith: My name is Daryl Smith and I'm a research fellow Senior Research Fellow and a professor emeritus at Claremont Graduate University […] my research has been on institutional change and diversity issues in higher education.

MNW: Smith studies and has conducted numerous diversity reviews for universities, and literally wrote the book on reviewing and improving diversity in higher education.

Smith : I think these reports give us an opportunity to, to honor where we've been, because we've clearly made progress. This, you know, 2021 higher education doesn't look like the 1960s. So we can mark progress, but then we can very carefully and articulately mark where we haven't made progress

OGO: So, as a basic definition, diversity reviews chart progress: whence we came, where we are at, where we should be going. But the deeper question underlying that is, progress toward what? What does it mean to make “progress” on diversity and inclusion?

MNW: That’s where Smith drew an almost radical analogy between diversity and technology:

Smith: In the early days of technology, what happened was institutions understood that the world was changing. And it was becoming more technological. And as campuses began to have those conversations, there were people who were very resistant to it. And there were faculty, I remember, they stood up in faculty meetings and said books would go away, libraries would close and higher education as we knew it would stop. Well, every campus I've been on, over the last number of years, has spent millions of dollars renovating their campuses. And as far as I can see it, books haven't gone away. But there was fear of change. But the notion was, it was an imperative. And we had to move. Now, what was important there, and I think an important lesson, even today, is there was recognition that capacity had to be built.

OGO: Her argument, in essence, seems to be that higher education rapidly adapted to new technologies because, if universities didn’t want to become obsolete, there was no alternative. And today technology is as core to higher ed as it is to the rest of the world — smart devices and software used for learning and teaching, devoting tremendous resources to research in computer science and engineering, online networks used for logistics and HR, big IT departments with an influential CTO, and so on.

MNW: Right, and Smith thinks universities should approach diversity similarly:

Smith: diversity is no longer a projection. It's no longer, do we want it or don't want it. Almost half of the young adult population in this country is already BIPOC. So the diversity issue, whether it's, for me the question is, for any institution, given their mission, why would this be an imperative? So for some campuses, it would be attractive from an enrollment point of view, if they're a traditional tuition generating institution. But for Harvard, any research university, it's preparing the future faculty, you know. We shouldn't have to — 10 years from now, I mean, that should be in everybody's job description. Daryl Smith should not be hired if I don't have competence in my field to engage ‘How does diversity play out?’

OGO: It strikes me as a very calculated way to think about diversity. She’s framing diversity as a means to accomplish the institution’s mission. Why can’t we have diversity for the sake of diversity? Isn’t combatting racism, sexism, and so on a worthy goal in and of itself?

MNW: Of course, it should be. But if all universities thought that way, there would be no reason for Smith to have written her book on diversity — or, for that matter, for this podcast. The reason Smith uses the technology analogy is because it’s an example of universities making rapid and dramatic change — whereas oftentimes, in her decades of experience helping universities with diversity and inclusion reviews, it seems higher education is very slow to make deep, institutional change on that front:

Smith: And I've been on many campuses where I could read the latest report and just change the date [...] I still see this today, that we've got diversity plans and unit plans. But they run parallel to the strategic core processes [...] it's when campuses have parallel processes, often on the backs of the same few people who have been doing this forever. And with not much institutional change

OGO: What exactly does she mean by “parallel” and “core”?

MNW: By parallel, she means something that’s tacked on — a new diversity office with limited authority, a multicultural center, mentoring programs. She calls this

Smith: project-itis, or programs — we're going to have mentoring programs to make people feel belonging, we have support programs for students, first generation students, for example — all of which are terribly important to support communities that often don't find themselves thriving in our institutions. But in terms of monitoring progress, it's mostly a parallel.

MNW: And it’s parallel because it’s not changing the central ways in which a university operates, like faculty hiring, leadership development, curriculum, research initiatives, campus climate.

OGO: So maybe a better term than “parallel” is “peripheral.”

MNW: Yes, and for Smith, diversity needs to move from the periphery to what she calls “core processes,” which might look like not only diverse faculty hiring, but requiring faculty to be able to deal with issues of diversity and structural inequity in their research; or making diversity part of every planning document and new policy that central admin makes, not just ones that fall under the “D&I” label; or making diversity key in capital campaigns, curriculum, and so on.

OGO: Okay, this makes more sense. But still, the technology analogy just strikes me as so pragmatic.

MNW: I mean, to an extent that’s the point. When diversity is a parallel, there’s no commitment. It’s easy to make an excuse. If diversity is seen as an imperative to the university’s mission, in Harvard’s case excellent scholarship, then it will be a priority for everyone, from the president to department chairs to professors to unit managers.

Smith: we have a lot of reasons that give her permission for failure. And one of my examples is, you know, if you were an advancement person in 2008 in the financial crisis, and you said to your President, ‘I can't raise any money,’ you would not be in your position. Now, you might modify your goals, you might figure out new strategies for engaging how you were going to sustain the work you do. But you wouldn't be permitted to say, ‘I can't.’ But for too long, the diversity effort has a lot of reasons and regrets. And I think this is where senior leadership at all levels of the institution, both faculty and administrative, become terribly important. This has to be a can do, not a reason why not.

MNW: So for a diversity review, this basically means a few things. One, the review should study and make recommendations about the core parts of the university, whether that be research production or faculty hiring or supporting low-wage workers. It can’t just be programs at the periphery. Two, it should recommend aligning leadership at all levels and in all schools or units toward this common goal. And three, it has to be urgent, and it can’t be optional.

OGO: I totally agree about the urgency of fostering and supporting diversity on college campuses, and, of course, in our entire society. Still, this analogy to technology, or the idea of “why would this be an imperative,” leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Don’t we lose something if diversity is primarily about performance, rather than equity? Isn’t there a risk diversity becomes cosmetic, or we become numbers-focused and don’t tackle the real, structural problems underneath? I mean, listen to this quote from the presidential task force report: “Initiatives to advance diversity, inclusion, and belonging should start and end with a focus on the academic and professional flourishing of all members of our campus community, rather than being formulated primarily as social problems.” What is racism if not a social problem?

MNW: Well there’s another way of looking at this, which is that maybe there’s no performance-equity binary — that for everyone to “flourish,” as the task force wrote, then you necessarily must tackle social problems. Diversity is central to academic excellence, whether that phrasing sounds good or not.

Smith: People who care about diversity issues, but actually to 21st century scholarship to good knowledge, excellent knowledge. And I've got plenty of examples of bad knowledge. Facial recognition software that doesn't recognize dark skin or different features, is not excellent. So who was sitting around the table testing that? If seatbelts are designed, and the early seatbelts, which people fought for forever in cars — well, turns out they were pretty dangerous to children and small people, particularly women. Why was that? Because when the engineers were designing the structure of the seat belt, they had the idea of a generic human being of a certain size, turns out bigger than the average woman and certainly bigger than the average child. That's not excellent to me.

OGO: So maybe equity and performance are necessary for one another? For Smith, a high-performing institution must be diverse and equitable, and for an institution to be equitable, people from structurally disadvantaged backgrounds have to have the support and opportunity to excel. I can understand how this is a useful metric, even if it doesn’t suit my ethical/moral sensibility.

MNW: Yes, exactly.

OGO: Okay, so we’ve talked a lot about diversity as a goal. Now let’s return to the specific review at hand, the 2018 Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging. Or, as we like to say on this podcast, let’s review the review, after the break.

Segment 3

OGO: The task force’s first recommendation was “Inclusive Symbols and Spaces.” They found many people, especially from marginalized backgrounds, felt the Harvard built environment was unwelcoming. So this includes actions like a revised ‘values statement,’ small accessibility changes to the public spaces of Harvard, and changing the lyrics of the Harvard 'alma mater’ to be more inclusive, though I probably couldn’t have told you the original lyrics.

MNW: My immediate — cynical — response is that this is purely cosmetic. It’s literally about the visual parts of Harvard. But thinking about it, making Harvard’s built environment inclusive is super important, it’s the physical and spatial context for everything that happens at the University — so making the physical space truly supportive is in some ways prerequisite to other diversity and inclusion efforts.

OGO: For sure, although let’s not get our hopes up. The change to the alma mater was quick. But to further implement this recommendation, Harvard in September of 2020 — that’s two and a half years after the presidential task force released its report — convened another task force, the FAS Task Force on Visual Signage and Culture. This committee will study the physical and visual environment at Harvard. This could mean, for instance, thinking about the tendency for Harvard seminar rooms to be lined with mahogany, and have busts of very very dead, very very wealthy men.

MNW: And that task force is only for FAS — presumably other schools will have to create additional task forces. I’m seeing a trend. Committees and reports lead to new committees and reports.

OGO: They tend to. First, Harvard had the 2015 Working Group, which led to the 2018 Presidential Task Force. Then, from the 2018 Task Force, it has this new Task Force on visual culture launched in the fall of 2020.

MNW: Not to mention yet another committee related to inclusive spaces, also convened at the end of 2020, to consider principles for renaming at Harvard.

OGO: These long chains of reviews seem a little like a delay tactic. It sounds almost corporate, a way to say, “we’re doing something, we recognize there’s a problem,” but really just using that to respond to criticism. I posed this question, about the utility of diversity reviews, to another expert on them, Frances X. Frei. She’s a professor at the Harvard Business School who specializes in improving diversity and inclusion at a corporate level. She’s the person who went into Uber after their storm of sexual harrassment and discrimination allegations, and tried to improve the environment. She gives Ted Talks on this sort of thing. In the months before she headed to Uber, she also worked on the presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging.

Frei: I think it can be good or can be bad. If they're used as license to postpone action, they make my head spin. If they are used, because we're really time sensitive and because we want to, like, learn from diverse perspectives, great. But task forces that are, oh, we have a problem, let's put a taskforce and, let’s just postpone the problem for like a year or two years, and it doesn't really have decision rights. To me, I get worried that that's — I don't mean this in a bad way, but the organization is stalling.

MNW: Okay, but we could also say continued study shows continued commitment. And we can acknowledge that, frankly, Harvard is full of scholars who like studying and believe in the value of understanding an issue in as many ways as possible. And okay, renaming and inclusive spaces kind of smacks of image preservation and clearly falls into this pattern of repeated reviews on a slow timeframe. But that’s only one out of eight recommendations. Let’s try to be optimistic.

OGO: Alright, let’s look at more. Recommendation number two, “Two University-Wide Research Centers to Expand the University’s Research Agenda.”

MNW: Which is basically to create two faculty-led initiatives that will think about ways to incorporate diversity into the central teaching and research missions at Harvard — exactly what Smith would want to see out of a review, thinking about diversity in the core activities. Although, this is a highly public and polished report, so of course it sounds good. As Smith might add, what matters is follow-through

Smith: Too many reports will say things like we urge deans and department chairs. We are long past the urging. People are too busy. If this is optional, we’ve got too much on our plate.

OGO: To that end, these two interfaculty initiatives sound a lot like still more diversity reviews. And in turn, those initiatives will do their own reviews, with further delay.

MNW: Although, both interfaculty initiatives were formed and led by senior professors, none of whom agreed to interviews. It doesn’t appear these two committees are active today, but they definitely influenced Harvard. The University Office for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging has launched numerous new efforts since the task force, and last summer Harvard hired its first Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer. They also have a council on diversity, inclusion, and belonging composed of senior leadership from all the schools and central units, that meets monthly. Clearly, people at every level of leadership are at least thinking about diversity. Although whether this is projectitis remains to be seen.

OGO: Alright, but let’s zoom out and consider the timeline. 2007 is the “I Am Harvard” protest. 2014 is “I, Too, Am Harvard.” 2015 is the College working group. 2016 through 2018 is the presidential task force. In 2020 Harvard hires a D&I Officer. It’s 2021 and we’re still waiting for big changes, and we’re still hearing of terrible experiences from students, staff, and faculty who are nonwhite, or not male, or not straight.. All in all, fourteen years have passed.

MNW: One recent, stunning, and preventable failure that comes to mind is how some have alleged Harvard did not prepare very well to support low income students in the move to Zoom last spring.

OGO: Exactly. Ugh, the language Harvard uses around diversity and inclusion — “Chief Diversity Officer,” alignment, “professional flourishing,” central units — is so sanitized and sounds like corporate PR. More generally this reminds me of the quip some like to make, that Harvard is a large corporation that happens to run a research university.

MNW: Wait, hold on a sec — let’s take that quip seriously, at least for a moment. Harvard is literally the oldest corporation in the United States, dating to 1650 — and so its investments, and what “performance” means for Harvard, are deeply tied up with hierarchies and legacies of slavery, land theft, and centuries-old elitism. An associated editor of the magazine, and a friend, Becca Cadenhead, brought up to us that, if we consider that how Harvard might have profit motives and not just be purely a research university, than the definition of ‘performance’ changes pretty drastically, as does the meaning of the University’s slow pace on diversity:

REJC: So, I think we probably shouldn’t ignore that one of Harvard’s main priorities is to remain financially solvent so that it’ll exist in the long term. The school is a non-profit, but the way that it manages its investments is similar to what you’d see from a hedge fund. And as I see it, most of what we could call its quote-unquote ‘profitability’ is related to its endowment, its day-to-day financial operations (like paying employees), and maintaining its public image (which is why people pay to go here). So basically these are also things that are likely taken into account when Harvard measures its own performance. I’m not saying that they’re more important than everything else, but they definitely hold significant weight. And I think that it’s possible that drastically changing the university to prioritize not only diversity, but real equity, would probably interfere with some of those goals.

MNW: Isn’t there a sense in which diversity would improve Harvard’s image or make it perform better?

REJC: Maybe, but Harvard doesn’t actually work like a traditional corporation — its income sources are different because its product is different. On a basic level, a lot of the changes that would be necessary to make the institution more equitable would just cost a lot of money, which makes them initially unappealing. They’re also questionable as a long term financial investment; some actions that would suggest that Harvard is committed to equity, like changing its financial investments or relying less on contracted or part-time workers, are probably bad for the budget. There’s also a part of me that thinks that in becoming too diverse or too equitable, Harvard could lose some of the perception of exclusivity that it benefits so much from.

MNW: In it’s most recent admissions cycle, class of 2025, harvard admitted record numbers of minority and first generation students. It’s also the most exclusive admissions cycle ever, with a record low admissions rate due to a record number of applicants. So Harvard’s gates are still, to most, closed. The question is in part that of at what scale, on whose terms, we define inclusion and exclusion. And there’s the context of affirmative action and a lot of scrutiny — a lot of risk to Harvard’s image — to consider as well

OGO: Part of what you’re asking seems to be, inclusion into what — if Harvard’s prestige comes from elitism, then diversity efforts will only ever be a partial inclusion into an exclusionary culture.

REJC: And to that end, Harvard also doesn’t have much of an incentive to change. A very obvious and awful implication of the discourse around corporate diversity is that corporations will only become more diverse to the extent that it makes them more competitive. But Harvard’s reputation and endowment are unparalleled — if diversity is only something that you prioritize when you’re trying to give yourself an edge, then Harvard might just not need to expend the effort.

OGO: What Becca’s saying, about Harvard having less incentive than a company to explore diversity, reminds me a lot of something Frei — who studies corporate diversity — mentioned:

Frei: Most companies don't have that kind of time because inclusion is an urgent and achievable goal, and the reason you want to do this is because you're going to get thumped by the competition who's doing it, from a performance perspective. There are some organizations that don't have, that are insulated from the competitive dynamics Not always so great, and they could take five or 10 years to do something.

OGO: Interestingly, Frei thought the 2018 presidential task force resolved this problem because it does articulate why inclusion and belonging are essential to Harvard’s quote-unquote performance.

Frei: It articulates, and I thought really beautifully, that some people might — this is my interpretation of it. But some people might think that inclusion is at odds with performance. Or in their case, in this case, I think performance was academic freedom. But you can do it with, it's at odds, they can work if you're really careful, or they actually are synergistic. In my experience, and organizations that like, if you're not inclusive today, and you become inclusive, tomorrow, you are going to skyrocket the performance of the organization.

MNW: So the report, for Frei, did a good job of creating a performance incentive for diversity. If we credit that explanation — we should recall that Frei was on the task force — then recommendations one and two seem net promising, but slow to come to fruition. Let’s go on to three.

OGO: Third, they recommended enhancing mental health resources, with special attention to the acute needs students from marginalized backgrounds can face.

MNW: Well, we know from our reporting on the Yardfest report that in the past couple of years Harvard has hired more mental health professionals of color, added diversity trainings, and generally tried to make it easier and more affordable to access mental health care.

OGO: Sure, but on the other hand a big part of implementing this recommendation was the Provost’s Task Force on Mental Health — another review committee. And that task force found 62% of students report having rates of loneliness, over were 30% diagnosed with or concerned about depressive or anxiety disorders, and more. Students have been lamenting long wait lines at CAMHS, and the report found a student-counselor ratio of 468 to 1, as well as multi-week waits between first contact and an appointment in 2019. This was all worse for minority, BGLTQ+, and FGLI students. Not to mention the terrible mental health struggles students have faced during Covid, often with limited University support. I hate to repeat myself, but again, the stakes are so high, and the process is just so slow.

MNW: Sure, but maybe it’s not stalling. We’re seeing, in the first three recommendations, the University taking first steps to make itself more inclusive — maybe it’s just that Harvard, again, really likes to study, so those well-intentioned initiatives take the form of reviews and reports, instead of urgent actions, which can be frustrating. I asked Smith about this:

MNW: Framed that way, these reports, and this information suddenly becomes really important, I guess. We've also like, sometimes it feels like the act of writing the report. You know, the act of saying, like we've identified a problem becomes a substitute for we've solved the problem

Smith: or we've made progress on the problem. Let's, you know, campuses will get caught up in, and this is where sometimes we use the wrong language, what's the goal for faculty diversity? And I don't want to have that conversation. I don't want to spend the next 10 years discussing whether the goal should be the demographics of the country, the demographics of the student body, the demographics of PhDs. I just want to mark progress, and I'd like the line to be more than just incrementally flat or down. I'd like it to be up. You know, it's quite a clear visual. Up.

OGO: A trend I’m seeing here is that the reports aren’t necessarily an inherent problem. The review process is a tool for people to use, or not use. And so then the reviews become important because they can be a well or poorly-crafted tool, and they can either be conducive to urgent action or to further study and delay. When reviews do become an impediment is when diagnosing the problem gets in the way of tackling it.

Smith: When a campus knows about a toxic department, for example. I was on a campus where somebody said, Would you do a study of which departments are toxic for faculty? And I said, you already know which department. There are people on your campus who already know it, you don't need to hire somebody to go do a study. So it's that kind of thing, even at the local level, where you want to see people dealing with issues even when they're known. And that's been the challenge of institutions. And our response is often sort of bureaucratic. We have procedures, but how about dealing with it? Because meanwhile, people are paying the price.

OGO: So the sort of well-intentioned, bureaucratic process needs to be shaken-up. Yet, I see that the next three recommendations from the 2018 report come under a category called “Sustained Focus on Inclusive Excellence” — it sounds like they take the (even) long(er) view.

MNW: Well, let’s look. Recommendations four and five are, I’m sorry to say, a bit corporate in their wording, about, quote, “School and Business Unit Strategic-Planning Work” and “Alignment and Coordination of Inclusive Excellence Work in the Office of the President and Provost.”

OGO: Gross. Behind the doublespeak, what does that look like?

MNW: Actually, if we apply Smith’s framework of core processes and the importance of senior leadership being invested in diversity, recommendations four and five might be the most promising. These recommendations are saying Harvard should work to coordinate across all the schools and offices to prioritize inclusion and belonging, and that all of this should be under the purview of the president and the provost — that’s as core as you can get. Now these recommendations, unsurprisingly, in part took the form of individual schools and units conducting their own diversity reviews. But at least Faust set deadlines of about seven months to submit those reviews to central admin.

Smith: The reality is that anybody in charge of those things will drill down and say ‘Where were the gaps?’ And that's usually in a school or a department at a local level. The President doesn't need to know that the art department overspent its budget, but the department chair should. And if it's not being built at that level, the cumulative effect over the long haul will be a budget deficit. And that's what we've got with diversity. So this has to be aligned and it can't be optional.

OGO: Okay, but I do want to put the breaks on your optimism — what Smith is saying is that although the public side of these reports seems vague and opaque, what matters more is the private side, that all school leadership is dedicated and working together. But who is going to hold them accountable to that? Like, we’ll never know about these internal reviews that Faust commissioned. Is the burden always on the people most hurt by the problem to demand transparency?

MNW: Well, if the leadership is dedicated to diversity, then there being a private side to these reviews is a good thing, because it means people are getting into the nitty-gritty. On the other hand, you’re totally right — it’s exhausting for students to be the ones holding Harvard accountable. And kind of useless, since we graduate in four years. Someone else I talked to about this was Natasha Warikoo, a professor at Tufts who used to be on the faculty at Harvard GSE and has studied diversity at Harvard and similar institutions for a long time. And she also thinks these diversity reviews are tools, and you need dedicated leaders who behind the scenes are working hard to implement them.

Warikoo: I think on the one hand, there are a lot of people who are very committed to trying to change the institution [...] on the other hand, I do, I think there is an argument to be made that these, these reports are sort of, quell and sort of, you know, put a stop to or, don't put a stop to, but sort of say, ‘okay, we're doing something,’ when we're not actually doing something. And I think that there is a little bit of that. And I think another issue that I didn't mention earlier is that the, you know, the undergraduates are largely the students who are really pushing for a lot of these changes. Undergraduates, you have a full turnover of the student body in four years

OGO: Right, if the burden is on students to pressure the University to change then it won’t happen — the reviews outlive the students, like what Hilda said. This makes me think of something Dorothy said in our conversation, the opposite of Hilda’s skepticism. After she graduated from Harvard — in theory the point when the University could cast aside her voice — instead she realized she felt so empowered by her experience being involved University administration through the Working Group — she saw it as an opportunity to make real change — that she started working in the Harvard College Office of Student Life. And she could be a fly on the wall, observing the way Harvard administration functions, and why they are often so trepidatious. Still in higher ed management, she now leads faculty development at Paul Quin College.

Villarreal: We were very weary of making big changes, because Harvard is a big lumbering institution, where, you know, one small flutter of a butterfly wing really can create a whole Cyclone. [...] And so I think, at Harvard, there's a sense of seriousness about any decision that you make is going to have a deep impact long term. And that could affect the country in ways that you may not have even imagined before.

OGO: But the way she explained this, the hesitation came from a place of care. The administrators were slow because they wanted to do right by their students — and, potentially, a lot of students beyond their purview.

Villareal: And I mean, the thing too is that they're also learning, right? Like, I think it's, it's really easy for us to kind of think like, Oh, well, you know, why don't they just get it? And the truth is that, you know, they're still learning a lot of things and I think, to their boon, you know, they really care about learning about the student perspective, and keeping up with the evolution of students’ thoughts and their perspective.

OGO: This makes sense to me; I want to see these administrators as people, too. But again, administrators can keep learning and checking on the student perspective forever, but at a certain point, there has to be a next step. Like the PULSE survey, which we talked about last episode — that was recommendation seven by the presidential task force. And they implemented it. But it doesn’t directly improve anything; it’s data collection. Just as Dorothy saw the stakes of the Harvard name as putting a lot of pressure on administrators to do things right, Warikoo sees that as an opportunity for real change.

Warikoo: And, you know, I've always felt, you know, especially when I was embedded in Harvard, that this is probably one of the few universities that if the university makes a big change, and does something bold, and radical, they will not lose status, because of the name Harvard, and that in some ways, they could be a real leader and say, we're gonna do this, we're gonna do this differently. [...] and a lot of people copy them because if Harvard does it, it must be a good thing to do. And, you know, I feel like, in some ways University was not, and is not always kind of bold enough

Segment 4

MNW: Fifty years ago, in the 1970s, in that crucible of change that Monroe and Dorothy Villarreal describe, Harvard had a choice to make.

Warikoo : So if you go even back to the push to have a center for students of color on the Brown and Harvard campuses. Brown University, after student activists were pushing for a center, eventually opened what was then called for many years the Third World center, and you know, when you look at the goals of the Third World — when I was doing this research it was actually still called the Third World center — and when you look at the, the goals of the Third World center, they were really about supporting students of color. There was a sort of social justice orientation to its mission. And Harvard, on the other hand, really pushed back against student activists who were also pushing for a third world Center at Harvard for many years. And finally many years later, long after Brown opened the Third World center, Harvard decided to do it, do things its own way, rather than respond to the students’ desires, and decided to open the Harvard foundation for Intercultural Affairs. And so you can see even in the name of the, of the foundation, a much more kind of integrationist approach.

MNW: That’s Warikoo again — she wrote a whole book about approaches to race and diversity at Harvard, Brown, and some British universities. In her research she found that when students demanded a Third World center in the 1970s, Harvard did not open a center explicitly devoted to supporting students of color. Instead, in 1981, Harvard formed the Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations. They chose what Warikoo calls an ‘integrationist’ approach, encouraging white and nonwhite student interaction and running student programs “designed to promote interracial and intercultural awareness and understanding” — but not aimed to support students of color to build solidarity or analyze and tackle structural inequities. The Third World Center at Brown, now called the Center for Students of Color, capitulated to the demands of radical student activists in the 1970s and focuses on the needs and experience of students of color in particular, helping them build unity, and to make sense of and take actions against structural racism, rather than promoting interaction between white and nonwhite students.

Warikoo: The advantage of Brown’s was that for students of color these institutions became — some, not all — some students of color they became kind of places where they really developed a deeper understanding of the world, of racism, of inequality, and developed social ties, both to people who were their own race but also other racial minorities.

Warikoo: And so, but white students were kind of excluded from that and didn't always understand, like, why did they all get together before freshman orientation, and kind of were a little perplexed by the Third World center.”

OGO: This is interesting, and kind of reminds me of the objections to the separate ‘Black Convocation’ at Harvard — where incoming Black students are welcomed to the school in a special ceremony — by outlets like Fox News. By creating venues for solidarity among students of color, white students feel ‘excluded.’ I’m skeptical of that ‘exclusion’ instinct, because it doesn’t acknowledge the way Harvard can be a hostile environment for students of color, and the ways they would need to come together.

Warikoo: Whereas at Harvard, you know, white students were included, but these, these centers didn't didn't seem to go as deep into really pushing for a difficult conversation. So, you know, what I say in the book is that we, we need a little bit of both, right — we need everybody to be part of the conversation, including white students, but we also need to go deeper than a kind of superficial look at difference.

MNW: Harvard chose this intercultural approach and has stuck to it for 40 years. We see that legacy in the 2018 Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging. The 2018 report isn’t specifically about: how can we better include students of color, or people who have been socially disempowered. It’s: how can we try to include everyone, no matter what advantage or disadvantage they have? Dorothy said something to this effect, about the College Working Group that predated the presidential task force.

Dorothy: Because the idea that, you know, we were creating something that was just for students of color to feel better, I think, is something that we very much tried to move away from, right. The idea is that when, when we make the college welcoming, and inclusive for everybody, all students will reap the benefits from it.

OGO: But, going back to Warikoo’s sentiment, when we start to ask the questions of who is included and why, in really concrete terms — especially when the context is a long history of disempowerment and marginalization of specific groups in the United States — it gets tricky, and a little hard to talk about.

MNW: In fact, the report emphasizes some groups that don’t have a particularly strong history of marginalization. One thing we noticed when reading the report was how often it mentions the suppression of conservative voices on campus. Here, I’ll find a quote: “In our outreach sessions, we heard a clear theme that many conservative students on campus engage in self-censorship to avoid possible alienation from peer groups.”

OGO: It’s a little strange to me that, in one of the largest diversity and inclusion efforts at the college, they would choose to give so much space to this single issue of conservative suppression. Sure, it’s a hot topic and a recent issue, but it’s not as entrenched as the university’s history of racism and exclusion on the basis of gender, economic status, country of origin. It’s not that free expression isn’t important and central to inclusion. In fact, Smith says,

Smith: I mean, I was a young Dean years ago, when I was involved in creating free speech policies on campuses, to allow the Black Panthers and Angela Davis to speak. I mean, there's a history there about that. [...] But I also think it's really important to just remember that speech, free speech policies came because that was a Black movement that was being suppressed. So how do we navigate that in our society? And of course, we're seeing it nationally now and using free speech as an excuse for things that are just unacceptable. And what kind of speech is acceptable? How does it campus speak about it?”

OGO: It is — and will always — be important to inclusion and diversity that people with different views can express their ideas freely. How else will people learn and grow? But when Harvard focuses on ‘difference’ in this really broad way, and gives a lot of space to the suppression of conservative voices in their report, well, it seems to me that they aren’t taking into account power differentials, or the very structure of our society. And those are much, much harder issues to dive deeply into, as Warikoo describes. It returns us to the questions, inclusion for who? And inclusion into what? For the University’s performance, or for the benefit of students? Into a truly welcoming environment, or a culture and space that is otherwise hierarchical?

Warikoo: sometimes it's irritating when political identity gets pulled into that, that, you know that it starts to feel like we're saying that being conservative on the Harvard campus is, is, you know, it is equivalent to being, say, an underrepresented minority. I think those are very different experiences. But, you know, when we're talking about feelings of belonging, they get sort of lumped together. So I think we need both of those, we need like a sustained focus on the roots of some of these forms of inequality and then we also need sustained focus on creating dialogue to be able to discuss these things in an open and honest manner.

MNW: It gets back to the whole performance vs. equity thing, I think — if diversity is defined in terms of performance, whether that’s teaching or research or profit, then the perception of academic freedom becomes a more important metric. And so this kind of flattened notion of inclusion risks superseding specifically tackling historical inequities. Like, the tools and approach Harvard takes in addressing the ‘inclusion’ of conservative students is — or should be — very different from the approach they would take in creating a better environment for Black students.

OGO: And those tools will also shift with time. If we think back to the study of race relations in 1980, Harvard’s approach to diversity as intercultural interaction, not structural analyses of power, made sense, given the general tenor of American mainstream politics. But now we’re in a different place, as a school and a country —

MNW: But we were also in a different place in 2007 than we were in 2011 than we were in 2015 than we were in 2018. Time keeps passing, and new reports — updated to the time they’re in, constantly trying to stay abreast of the national and campus conversation — keep coming out, and eventually, some action will need to take place. So, on one hand, yes, the tools need to shift with time, and the diversity reviews should reflect the current times. On the other, I fear that leads us to an outcome similar to what Smith described in our conversation.

Smith: in the last chapter of my book, I tried to pull all that together in terms of the importance for leadership, and leadership at every level. That means the faculty chairs, that means the president, the provost, the deans, the department just have to understand this as an imperative. Otherwise, we will have lovely people pulling together lovely reports, hand it in, and we'll be back — I hope not — five years from now to have this conversation again

Segment 5

OGO: So diversity reviews — under the right leadership, they can track progress and create impetus for change. Or they can stall and delay, substituting identifying the problem for implementing a solution.

MNW: And at a sprawling institution like Harvard, it’s hard to know how they’re functioning — we see what seem like serious efforts to move diversity from the periphery to the core of the University, but they’re so slow, so we remain skeptical, even pessimistic, about whether these reviews are substantive or cosmetic, about performance or equity or a bit of each.

OGO: Well, if the 2018 task force and everything we’ve learned from all these experts provide a framework, let’s apply it — full circle to where we started this podcast, thinking about policing and racism at Harvard. In the summer of 2020, the 2018 presidential task force’s charge to the University was put to the test when Harvard police officers were cited at a Black Lives Matter rally far from Harvard’s campus, adding heightened urgency to concerns over racism, diversity, and policing that have circulated for decades.

MNW: And, of course, Harvard responded with a review. But students sought to take matters into their own hands, to hold Harvard accountable — at the same time that President Lawrence S. Bacow announced an independent review of HUPD last summer, a coalition of abolitionist activists and students embarked on their own review of HUPD. In the two-part finale of Under Review, we’ll put those reports — one top-down and University sanctioned, the other bottom-up and written by students — side-by-side.

HUPD protest: we know about the Harvard police being called in as reinforcements to intimidate protestors in Boston who filled the streets to demand justice for Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and George Floyd.

Bond: what we hope for a review like this is figuring out what the next version of any given unit is, whether it's the police or health and wellness, health facilities

Noah Harris: It's like they're resistant to, to change, but at the same time they're asking us, you know, how we should change HUPD?

MNW: Under Review is a podcast from Fifteen Minutes, the Harvard Crimson’s weekly magazine. This episode was produced by Lara Dada. Music by Ian Chan. Cover art by Meera Nair. Special thanks to Zing Gee, Thomas Maisonneuve, James Bikales, and Becca Cadenhead.

About Under Review:

How can Harvard, an institution with so much history, have so little memory?

The racial reckonings and Black Lives Matter protests that swept the country this past summer brought attention to a trend in how Harvard seems to deal with student activism and concerns surrounding race, racism, and diversity: to commission a diversity review. These committees and reports long predate this summer, and reading them it can seem, at times, like some things have not changed at the University — in race relations, Harvard’s review process, or the findings and recommendations. What can these diversity reviews accomplish, and what can’t they?

“Under Review” is a podcast from The Harvard Crimson, hosted by Matteo Wong and Olivia Oldham, chairs of The Crimson’s weekly magazine, Fifteen Minutes. Each week, they will explore controversies and diversity reviews stretching across 40 years of Harvard history, speaking to dozens of students, activists, experts, and more, to try and understand how the Harvard diversity review works — or doesn’t.

“Under Review” is produced by Zing Gee, Thomas Maisonneuve, and Lara F. Dada. Music by Ian Chan. Art by Meera S. Nair.