Harvard’s Legacies


Concentration, not major; comp, instead of join; teaching fellow, never assistant. Harvard students speak differently. Upon arrival to campus, our tongues adapt, picking up a uniquely Cantabrigian lingo, a dialect of the in-group and the in-group alone. Every minute spent in Annenberg (well, ’Berg) or in line at Pinocchio’s (’Nochs) solidifies the new terminology.

This mildly pretentious lexicon is hardly our institution’s primary imprint on the graduating class. The places we live in hold power; their histories bleed through, making and unmaking us in their image. Like plant stakes, these tales ground us in our physical surroundings, inconspicuously guiding the ways we are able to grow. In America, few such histories reach back further than Harvard’s. This is an institution older than the country itself, a training ground for much of our nation’s elite, a mirror and creator of every stigma, hierarchy, and social leap. At Harvard, our physical surroundings and the attached set of communities and norms shape us in ways we sometimes don’t recognize or perceive.

Long after our commencement ceremonies are over, some of our most recent graduates might still allude offhandedly to “the yard,” or accidentally speak of “comping” a book club in their new, fancy city with the new, fancy job. They will also, however, carry the more subtle marks of the Harvard graduate, the remnants of a brush with Harvard’s history. Our institution’s legacy is, in many ways, theirs too. Our graduates will, for the rest of their lives, look at the world through Crimson-tinted glasses. The long, grassy stretches by the Charles, the maze that is Widener library, even the beloved Radcliffe Quadrangle, for those studying abroad — all have helped mold us more than we know.

But these Cambridge buildings aren’t just backdrops for college nostalgia. Architecture isn’t neutral at Harvard. Bearing witness to this institution and all of its glorious and shameful chapters, our buildings offer grim reminders of days past, fixing in stone once commonplace views. This year brought us yet another example: Westmorly Court’s fireplace, deep within one of the University’s better-known halls and covered up by concerned administrators, featured three distinct, grotesque racial caricatures. The hearth, with its ‘civilized’ and ‘uncivilized’ dichotomy, signals that Harvard’s legacy is one of benefitting from and helping entrench existing hierarchies. For decades, Harvard students who inhabited the residence — including later-president Franklin D. Roosevelt, Class of 1904, who would go on to authorize the internment of Japanese Americans — existed next to the fireplace’s racist depictions of Asian, African and Indigenous minorities. Harvard’s destructive racial legacy undoubtedly influenced its student body.


If our homes shape us, so too do we shape our homes. The now infamous Westmorly fireplace once helped trivialize racist caricatures; in archival footage, our predecessors can be seen kissing by the grotesque pillars, apparently unfazed by their surroundings. Fast forward a few decades and student journalism and uproar alike have paved the path for the chiseling out of the abhorrent sculptures. Unwilling to passively inherit our institution’s legacy, we made it our own.

The lesson from the hearth isn’t that our university is defined exclusively as a home to despicably racist artwork, nor that it’s far enough from its dark past to comfortably conceal it behind hollow panels. Instead, the fireplace shows that our history is very much alive. No chapter can remain unread, no stone unturned: A full biopsy of the systems we create, strengthen, and perpetuate is warranted.

Wrestling with our past so as to better understand our present must mean more than removing its most gruesome indicators and keeping them out of sight. It’s a matter of reckoning with our legacies — with the things we carry and those we leave behind.

Sometimes that reckoning is more explicit — and more expensive — than symbolic statue removals. The University’s report on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery, with its attached $100 million price tag to implement recommendations, is a good example. The University didn’t decide to wrestle with its role in enslaving over 70 human beings overnight or entirely of its own accord; an early undergraduate-led push to inspect our ties to slavery was crucial in inspiring the report. We are as grateful for the students who spearheaded that effort as we are for the administrators who, in time, decided to champion and expand it. Still, the findings of the report remind us of a devastating and relevant chapter of Harvard’s history. The same campus that prides itself on the birth of countless notable figures is also a cruel burial ground for the until now, largely nameless individuals it exploited.

Harvard is still in possession of Native American artifacts, daguerreotypes of enslaved individuals initially created to promote scientific racism, and many unidentified human remains. The university must proactively right these past wrongs, or watch them fester and cast new shades of shame upon its legacy. More importantly, affected individuals — from the modern incarnation of Native American tribes from which the artifacts originate, to the descendants of those whose bodies are collected as objects for display — deserve justice and peace. They deserve their own legacies.

Harvard’s legacies, of course, aren’t only racial. As the opulent Westmorly Court reminded us, Harvard has long been an institution for and by the upper echelons of the economic elite, a university geared largely toward capital. Our laudable financial aid program has made a small dent in the numbers, offering a ladder to the ivory tower, yet our classes remain disproportionately wealthy. We are reminded not just of the legacy admissions system, which benefits (largely well-off and white) students with familial ties to our institution, but of the legacies that aren’t. Those who, lacking a crimson parent or a niche, expensive sport to highlight in their application, see the Yard’s stately gates close before them. Our legacy of exclusion, present and past.

It is every Harvard affiliate’s responsibility to continue our fight for greater inclusivity. Yet re-shaping our student body to more closely mirror the surrounding society will take decades and inevitably involve forces outside our control — positive ones, like the reforms to school district funding we’ve advocated for, and negative ones, including looming challenges to the affirmative action system that has so radically improved our school’s representativeness.

In the meantime, correcting the legacy of excessive class hierarchies within Harvard itself must remain our top priority. That starts with recognizing the value and dignity of manual labor, which our university has undervalued even in places where it was once central, like dorm crew. This year more than ever, class analysis cannot be separated from a discussion of organized labor. Amid a national resurgence in union power, Harvard’s graduate students and staff embraced the power of collective action. We must recognize the efforts of graduate students who put their jobs on the line and undergraduate course workers who showed solidarity.

Last fall, the Harvard Graduate Student Union fiercely fought for and eventually obtained a better contract. Students sought conditions and pay raises they deserved, creating, through picket lines and signs, physical reminders of the clashes between workers and their employers.

In doing so, they helped make strikes and strike culture an indelible part of the Harvard legacy, a framework for graduating classes to follow or implement. For that, we are immensely grateful.

The efforts of labor organizers demand our support, and the fruits of such organizing are spread far and wide, well beyond what is suggested by class-only readings of our surroundings. Third-party arbitration, which HGSU-UAW pushed so hard for, could have brought much-needed reform to Harvard’s Title IX procedures. The University’s intransigence on this point was not merely a reinforcement of the class hierarchies at our institution. It strengthened gender hierarchies as well, hurting future victims of sexual misconduct at our school.

The hierarchies of class and economic status are thus inseparable from other standing power imbalances at our school, including gender inequity. We see that intersection in the demographic homogeneity of our 66 percent male tenured faculty. We see it in the astonishingly persistent culture of sexual misconduct. We see it, time and time again, in the inadequate nature of the administration’s responses.

Earlier this year, a lawsuit surfaced yet another batch of deeply disturbing allegations of misconduct against a prominent Harvard professor. Had the University’s own recommended policy changes been in place, they may have prevented yet another case of a professor harassing students. Without reform, legacies perpetuate themselves. Conformity in the face of deep rot is not only unproductive, but actively harmful.

The above is no less true when our focus shifts from University decision-making to everyday student life. After a years-long hiatus, our peers have returned to in-person social spaces, where imbalances of power permeate male-dominated social spaces like final clubs. Against this backdrop, the Bee’s new physical space in the Square embodies the potential to steer final club culture (a largely regrettable, if seemingly unmovable fixture of our campus) away from exclusivity, elitism, and gendered violence and toward a safer, more equal footing for women.

Yet with marked increases in the percentage of students that identify as queer on campus in the past few years, we must grapple with the implications of a heavily gendered social culture on non-conforming members of the student body. What, if anything, is the legacy of gender-exclusive spaces for those who reject gender exclusivity or labels outright? And what trail will our queer peers leave at the clubs they join or refuse to join, the ones they shape through their presence or absence alike?

We simply don’t know. Legacies aren’t made in a day; they are not fixed or unmovable. As the new, fireplace-free Westmorly will soon show, the Harvard legacy is an unfinished draft, subject to edits by students and affiliates alike. Future communities will scrutinize our norms, dot our i’s, and overturn our precedents. The graduating classes of 2020-22 have now, more than ever before, a responsibility to leverage their voices to rewrite that draft — or, in failing to do so, to solidify its most egregious errors.

Leveraging our voices means stepping up and leading when we can and should. In our time at Havard, we’ve seen examples of leadership to follow and to flee from in equal measure. The mess of student government showed us the perils of seeking positions for self-advancement. Efforts to replace the Undergraduate Council had their own serious flaws, but they showed that we have the agency to reshape old legacies for better or worse.

Of course, dozens of members of the graduating classes have been UC representatives or Crimson editors or club presidents. A far smaller number will go on to become U.S. Representatives, journalists, or CEOs. Harvard produces an unusual number of leaders, but part of graduating college is realizing that your impact on the world will most likely be less dramatic than your grandest college dreams. Even as we pursue our highest aspirations, we need to think about what good citizenship might look like — not as a future thought leader but as a software engineer, advertising manager, or public defender — as a member of a unionized workplace, perhaps.

These are thoughts for commencement time. When we’re knee deep in problem sets, with some admirable exceptions, we don’t have time to reflect. When we’re busy in the office, college will fade rapidly into nostalgia. It’s awfully hard to see the big picture when your nose is scrunched against a grindstone.

But at this moment of transition, we have time to reckon with our legacies to date and think consciously about what legacies we want to leave. The world changes Harvard, and Harvard changes us. In some small way, we can complete the loop: change Harvard and the world, too.

Now is the time to think about how.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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