The Washington Post calls Harvard University’s commitment to spend $100 million to address its ties to slavery a “good-faith effort to reckon with its past [that] should be applauded.” In contrast, Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of The New York Times Magazine’s “1619 Project,” considers the amount “way too low.”
What should we think of Harvard’s efforts to acknowledge and make amends for its historical ties to slavery? Is this simply a dramatic yet stage-managed ploy to buy forgiveness? Or is it a commendable plan for redress that offers an appropriate model for other institutions to emulate?
Also, has Harvard established a precedent with implications for the campus’s other historic injustices, including its admissions quotas and its faculty leadership in scientific racism, eugenics, forcible sterilization of the “unfit,” immigration restriction and shaping and implementing some of the more sordid episodes in American foreign policy?
The presidential committee’s report, which The Boston Globe describes as “unflinching,” calls on the institution to:
- Improve educational opportunities for the descendants of enslaved Black and Native American people.
- Support historically marginalized children and youth through programs like the Cambridge-Harvard Summer Academy of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Harvard’s Crimson Summer Academy.
- Honor enslaved and Indigenous peoples through campus memorials, research and the university’s curriculum.
- Develop partnerships with historically Black colleges and universities; subsidize summer, semester or yearlong visits to Harvard; and support Harvard students who wish to spend their junior year at an HBCU.
- Establish a substantial, dedicated, endowed fund to support “reparative efforts.”
It’s all too easy—and far too early—to quibble about those recommendations, especially their lack of specificity.
Still, it’s certainly fair game to ask why Harvard isn’t explicitly committing itself to address racial and class disparities nearer to home. After all, just 20 percent of Harvard undergraduates come from families making the median income or less. Also, Boston public schools had a four-year high school graduation rate of just 73.2 percent in 2019, and nearby Bunker Hill Community College, which is 27.5 percent Hispanic and 27 percent African American, has an eight-year graduation rate of 21.1 percent.
But before we dismiss Harvard’s actions as posturing, institutional positioning and pure virtue signaling and symbolism, I think we should ask ourselves, what should institutions like Harvard do?
Here are five steps that colleges and universities ought to take.
1. Publicly Acknowledge the Institution’s History in Full
Denial of past wrongs takes many forms. There is the repression of memory: remaining oblivious to unpleasant realities by keeping these facts out of conscious memory. There is conscious denial: the willful rejection or contradiction of truths that are difficult to bear. Another form of denial involves minimizing and rationalizing the past, either by denying the significance of certain facts or excusing or justifying wrongful behavior. In addition, there is the denial of personal culpability and engaging in projection, acknowledging and accepting that evil occurred but blaming others.
The only proper response, I believe, is public acknowledgment. I don’t think a report is sufficient. I’d urge our colleges and universities to create physical museums that examine their history fully, accurately and without flinching.
2. Render a Public Accounting of the Present-Day Legacies of Past Wrongs
It’s all too easy to treat past wrongs as history, as events that occurred in the distant past and bear no close connections to the present. But past events have present-day consequences, and these, too, need to be laid bare. In the case of colleges and universities, this will require far greater transparency about admissions practices, faculty recruitment and representation, and student academic and postgraduation outcomes. An equity audit would reveal, for example, whether all undergraduates have similar access to high-demand majors.
3. Validate and Affirm the Centrality of Equity Issues to the Institution’s Research Agenda
True accountability requires institutions to affirm the value of previously marginalized research topics and to acknowledge alternate scholarly perspectives. Validation might include making global and comparative perspectives on slavery, race, caste, colonialism and migration central to the institution’s research agenda and supporting and funding such research appropriately.
4. Insofar as Possible, Rectify Past Wrongdoings
Instead of using the Judeo-Christian language of atonement, penance and expiation to address past wrongdoings, I find it more valuable to take practical steps to address and insofar as possible remedy the consequences of past misdeeds. These might entail formally repudiating legacy admissions and repositioning athletic programs to offer fewer elite sports and more sports that attract a diversity of students. It might also include a commitment to reducing the percentage of students from private schools, which now stands at 35 percent at Harvard, and enrolling significantly more community college transfer students.
5. Look Forward
Well-resourced institutions bear a particular responsibility for building talent pipelines. Many models already exist. These include:
- Saturday and summer science, social science and humanities academies.
- Curriculum and instructional resource development.
- Enlarged in-school and after-school programs.
- Expanded community service initiatives.
- Enhanced research and mentoring opportunities for high school students and talented undergraduates at broad-access institutions.
- Increased campus outreach and access to graduate students and junior faculty at underresourced institutions.
- A significantly enhanced campus extension program offering skills workshops and other programming in underserved communities.
All of these initiatives need, in turn, to be accompanied by public accountability, so that outsiders can accurately assess the impact of the efforts to redress past inequities.
No, Balzac did not say that behind every great fortune lies a great crime. His actual words, in Le Père Goriot (1835), however, are equally damning: “Le secret des grandes fortunes sans cause apparente est un crime oublié, parce qu’ il a été proprement fait”—“The secret of every great fortune is a crime that has been forgotten, because it was executed properly.”
Many of history’s worst evils weren’t regarded as wrongs at the time, or even much later. It’s notable that Yale University did not remove a 1708 portrait of the university’s namesake from its Corporation Room until 2007, even though the painting shows an enslaved child with a padlocked collar around his neck.
We can’t repair the past. After all, those who were directly harmed are dead. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t publicly acknowledge past evils and do our best to redress their legacies.
As the beneficiaries of resources and reputations accumulated in the past, we also bear responsibility for past transgressions. Those students and faculty who have the great privilege to attend or teach at Harvard have debts to repay and a moral obligation to do their darnedest to rectify and remedy the inequities and injustices of the past.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.