A Harvard Dean’s Strange Comment on Racial Protests

The people who run Harvard College rarely wade into intensely controversial public policy issues. Their personal views may not be at all representative of the Harvard alumni whose contributions are needed to keep the endowment growing.

It is thus somewhat surprising that the Harvard administration has been so unhinged by the deaths in Ferguson and Staten Island that the Dean of the College has circulated a remarkable letter to the college’s students. The views he expresses would not be noteworthy if they came from some random professor. Lots of my former colleagues think this way. But the Dean of Harvard College is not a run of the mill professor; his office produces the rules and regulations that govern campus life.

Here is the text in full. Read it and weep.

 

Note that this is not yet another call for a “dialogue on race” a la Bill Clinton and Eric Holder. The term “dialogue” at least suggests discussion among people whose views differ, even though those who are keen on the idea in fact believe that the real point of racial “dialogues” is to “educate” whites about all the things they are doing wrong. Dean Khurana, though, is preaching the gospel, and apparently cannot grasp that any of Harvard’s several thousand undergraduates might be dubious about the great “paradigm shift” that he calls for. He believes that “the diversity of our student body at Harvard College should be on the forefront of this paradigm shift.” I can’t figure out how the racial mix of the student body can “be at the forefront” of a “paradigm shift.” But this assertion surely means that the college’s students should be even more obsessed with their racial identity than they are now.

The only diversity Dean Khurana has in mind is racial diversity. He is oblivious to diversity of much greater importance: intellectual and ideological diversity. The intellectual development of students, in my old-fashioned view, is best fostered through arguments with their peers, their teachers, and others. Dean Khurana doesn’t seem to understand that unfettered discussion and debate about the larger world are essential parts of a college education—at least not discussion and debate about issues related to race. He fervently hopes that all Harvard undergraduates “will insist on drawing attention to our failures as a society.” Fine, but shouldn’t there be equal room for drawing attention to our successes as a society, and for exposing the falsity of many claims about supposed injustice? This is not a call for searching discussion about a very complex social issue. It sounds to me like a secular version of the old injunction “Come to Jesus.”

In fact, it sounds like “Come to Jesus—or Else.” Get with the “new paradigm” or you will be judged to be morally deficient. If all students are part of “a community based on the dignity of, and respect for, everyone we encounter,” must all of them share the Dean’s conception of racial issues in the United States today? Will those who do not be found deficient in “ally-ship”?  Dean Khurana may be too overwrought to see it, but students who bother to read his letter may take it as a warning that they could get into trouble if they refuse to worship at his church.

Students, of course, have traditionally not been much influenced by sermons from college administrators. But Harvard has more than its share of exceptionally ambitious young men and women who began polishing their resumes at a tender age. Many of them probably believe the UN Secretary-General’s absurd claim that Harvard students “stand in a unique position to shape our world’s future on important issues.”And they know that their prospects of admission to law or medical school, for example, and the shining careers they expect will follow thereafter might be blighted if anything in their record suggested that they might have been accused of “racial insensitivity” in their college days. Dean Khurana thinks that students whose racial views are like his own are “in pain and struggling right now.” I worry more about the pain that may be inflicted on students who dare to question the liberal conventional wisdom on racial matters.

This edict could pose difficulties for the faculty as well. A number of the courses I taught at Harvard over more than four decades involved issues of race in the United States. If I still were teaching, would it be appropriate for me to ask my seminar students what they thought of  Al Sharpton, the leader of the protest movement that the Dean so fervently celebrates? Those who know of his vile history might offer sharply negative evaluations that others would find disrespectful of the Revered Al. Would any of the latter complain to the Dean that the dissenting remarks caused them pain and were inconsistent with the Dean’s glorious “new paradigm”? If a few students were called in for questioning about their ideological deviationism, others would learn to keep their mouths shut on the matter. And their teachers might feel obliged to avoid raising questions that could get their charges in trouble.

This may seem far-fetched. Most students will probably not spend much time pondering the Dean’s murky prose in an effort to decipher just what it would mean to embrace the “paradigm shift” he calls for. It is nevertheless deeply disturbing that the Harvard administration—without consultation with the faculty, it seems–has endorsed and promoted a particular view of a large and complicated  public issue. If the university embraces the paradigm shift Dean Khurana calls for, the logical choice for the 2015 commencement speaker would be Al Sharpton.

Stephan Thernstrom

Stephan Thernstrom

Stephan Thernstrom is the Winthrop Professor of History Emeritus at Harvard University.

27 thoughts on “A Harvard Dean’s Strange Comment on Racial Protests

  1. The new paradigm shall be racial diversity but no diversity of thought. I believe the syllogism of the new paradigm is as follows: any confrontation involving police and black men that results in the subsequent death of said black man is automatically, not subject to any sane or reasonable scrutiny, deemed as a racially motivated hate crime perpetrated by the white oppressor class.

    I would much rather the mantra be “all lives matter” or even better “the truth matters”. A vocal and highly visible subset of our culture seems manically preoccupied with righting every historic wrong with…more wrong.

  2. Your critique hit the mark. The Dean’s specifically cites the “events in Ferguson and Staten Island” and says he is in awe of the resolve that “Black Lives Matter.” He then states: ” I hope each of you will insist on drawing attention to our failures as a society…” The problem is that most Americans understand that in Ferguson, Michael Brown was killed because he violently attacked a police officer and, the daughter of Eric Garner stated to Don Lemon of CNN that, “This is not a black and white issue.”

    The Dean isn’t actually calling for people to follow Al Sharpton. The Dean is a Mini-Me or wannabe version of Al Sharpton, distorting the facts, stoking racial division and grievance, and distorting the facts of the events he cites. As you point out, it is particularly odious because he is in a position of authority over the students at Harvard College.

    Intelligent, thoughtful students will know enough to keep their mouths shut. Intelligent, thoughtful alums should keep their wallets shut and open their mouths to tell solicitors of donations what they think of Harvard circa 2014.

  3. It is often argued that those obsesssed with racial issues can find prejudice wherever they look. In this column, we have a great example of the complementary phenomenon, the ability of some conservatives to see a liberal campaign of persecution in even the most anodyne of sentiments. Perhaps, some plot is lurking behind all of those bromides about diversity and creating a community that allows students to learn fundamental lessons, but the letter itself provides no evidence of it. I would suggest that if anyone was weeping after reading that letter, they were primed by a very longstanding and well-nourished sense of persecution. Or perhaps, they just despaired to see the English language turned to such mush.

  4. I was never Harvard material and enjoyed immensely my time at University of Georgia. Perhaps because I’m not Harvard material, a letter such as Dean Khurana’s would have precisely no impact on the student me because I wouldn’t have bothered to read it. With any luck, there are Harvard students with a similar disconnect from their putative leadership.

    On the other hand, one part of the letter struck me: “… for an opportunity to gather as a community and listen to one other.” I just went to Georgia, but it’s my opinion that the sentence should read. “… one another.”

    Again, perhaps I fail to understand rules of usage applying to Harvard faculty, staff and students.

  5. I remember the good old days when schools were institutions dedicated to transferring specialized information and knowledge by seniors to younger generations, with the intention of making them future professionals. These future professionals would then provide their services to society in exchange for remuneration, and so forth, keep building a nation.

    The only diversity that counted then was how many would be doctors, or engineers, or lawyers, etc. I cant for the life of me, figure out how having more or less diversity in a class room will make that future doctor a better or worse doctor. I know as a student, I couldnt care less what gender, race, etc was the guy seated next to me. All I cared was for taking notes from that fast talking professor.

    But seems today, these “schools” have become LICs (Liberal Indoctrination Centers). I feel sorry for the parents using their lifetime savings to send their kids to these LICs only for them to be used as peons of some kind of capricious social experimentation. Parents are just providing food for these people rather than those teachers providing the knowledge transferal on specific fields which is what they are being paid for.

    Pathetic.

  6. I am not a scholar or an intellectual; I would not have succeeded in Harvard, but I have learned life’s lessons from 30 years as a naval officer and aviator. I’m nearly 70 years old now, and my personal progress on matters of race has been extraordinary. It is because I worked with a magnificent group of men and women who didn’t measure each other on the basis of race. I believe most Americans have made the same progress I have, and as a vivid testimony to my belief, I present President Obama who received a noteworthy number of votes from white voters. This is real evidence. This is not a trite matter. It is a vivid and significant window onto the lives of those of us who are white. Let’s stop, be grateful, and savor this accomplishment.

  7. In some strange way, I can’t help feeling that this Harvard emanation situates itself quite comfortably somewhere on a continuum that terminates quite spectacularly with situations like North Korea….

  8. The dean’s proposal of course is none other than aggressive affirmative action. This is a well-intentioned idea that has no hope of working in practice. Successful Harvard applicants have to be at least ok academically to get in. They give points for legacy, but the hope for the common person is merit. Merit is the opportunity for the poor kid to become a CEO or Nobel Prize winner. The dean is essentially proposing to toss out merit in favor of skin color. That is not even an indicator, as Obama is culturally more white than black and grew up with “white privilege” if there were such a thing.

    The reason why affirmative action and 8(a) programs have failed to raise the lot of blacks is because most blacks do not have the talent necessary to succeed. It showers riches upon those few that do, or are close, but does nothing for the drop-out, single welfare mother, or criminally inclined which are seen disproportionately among blacks.

    The root cause of black under performance in society is failed family and failed K-12 education. That cannot be fixed in the Harvard admissions office.

  9. Dean Khurana didn’t mention Al Sharpton – you did, Professor Thernstrom. I can’t find anything objectionable in Dean Khurana’s message – just support for students and a call to be considerate and respectful of others’ views.

    1. Yeah, a call to be considerate with a gun to your head if you say maybe you’d like to be more considerate of reasonable police actions than the criminals involved.

    2. “I hope each of you will insist on drawing attention to our failures as a society, and that this insistence will be the result of what you are learning, of mutual education and understanding, …”

      This part is what is problematic. As you say, he asks students to be understanding and respectful of others but based on a foredrawn conclusion that our society has failed which is to say racist. He does not allow the premise that racism is improving to enter the discussion or that there may be other causes, other than racism, that led to these events.

    3. …nothing objectionable if you agree that young adults in college should be encouraged to behave like infants. The Ivy League has completely imploded.

    4. i think what the Professor is concerned about is that term “paradigm shift”. Consideration and respect for others is worthy, but based on acts and attitudes at many other universities it doesn’t extend to those who hold differing opinions. The Dean is clearly a fine writer and if his emphasis was truly consideration for others I don’t think the concept of paradigms would have appeared

    5. Considerate and respectful of others’ views, yes. I don’t read anything in Professor Thernstrom’s piece that calls for students to be anything but. However, Professor Thernstrom so clearly points out, the leader of the protest movement to which Dean Khurana refers is Mr. Sharpton. And Mr. Sharpton is not known for the consideration and respect he shows to others’ views. Professor Thernstrom’s inclusion of Mr. Sharpton is, for this very reason, appropriate.

    6. I think the good professor is speaking from knowledge of who this khurana is. the prof is not saying fork-tongued crawling rev was mentioned in the letter

    7. Mr. Garofalo – Try rereading Dean Khurana’s message. Parse each sentence to its logical conclusion. It takes time, but Mr. Thernstrom is correct.

  10. Many folks are killed by the Police every year, they kill many more white folks than blacks, but that is never part of the Story. Lets take a look at the death of Mr. Garner, the confrontation we have all seen on Video started about 15 minutes before the start of the Video, the Police had called for backup twice, the black female Sargent seen in the Video was the Shift Commander and also came to that location. The Police had already spent 15 minutes trying to get Mr. Garner to submit to this arrest, as he had done in the past at least 30 times. What does the liberal media think the Police should have done, have another 15 minutes of talk with Mr. Garner? Most folks could withstand a small scuffle with the Police, but this guy died because he was Morbidly Obese and in very poor health. When the Cop says you are under arrest just submit to the arrest, fighting the Police will not improve the situation for you.

  11. Professor, you are a brave man. Universities need people like you to question the smug righteousness of their leaders. It is bad enough that these schools are indoctrinating students, but the point you make about the lack of inquiry and discussion is huge. These students are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for an education. For that money, they should be learning how to think, reason, question, and form their own opinions.

  12. Professor,
    Your critique seems measured and thoughtful. Thankyou. The Dean’s letter strikes me as obvious, fatuous and, going forward, likely irrelevant.

    1. The “dean” doesn’t give a damn. He has a very nice salary and
      pension and will do whatever is necessary to keep both. These
      elites are mindless regurgitaters of the leftist agenda all the while
      living off the fat of the land like the worst crony capitalists. Who the hell cares what they think–let the students make up their own minds.

  13. Instead of commenting on the text of Dean Khurana’s letter, I want to commend Professor Thernstrom for his thoughtful column. I am not a Harvard graduate. In a sense, I consider myself fortunate to have attended and successfully completed a very rigorous course of study at a very highly regarded public institution. What made my education even more worthwhile was the fact that nobody–not the school’s administration, not its professors, and not even its more activist students–tried to dictate what I should think or how I should go about obtaining knowledge. I realize that, today, this is not how institutions of higher education conduct themselves. This is especially true on our nation’s east and west coasts. So Professor Thernstrom has demonstrated his intelligence and his fortitude with the words he has written in this piece. It would be truly wonderful if others could take heart from Professor Thernstrom and speak out against the wave of politically-correct like mindedness that has done so much to stifle intelligent and honest discussion in this country. Thank you, Professor Thernstrom.

    1. I agree wtih you. It seems we folks out here in society are not capable of thinking without some from Harvard telling us how to think. I don’t recall professors in the early 60’s, the era of my college life, telling me how to think! I was taught HOW TO, not WHAT TO and I could choose and still do!

    2. Sounds great. At U.C. Berkeley, they promote what you declared but in office and in class and admin. they act the opposite. You do not have freedoms there, of anything. Either promote what your professors tells You or be ‘black listed’ from all job opportunities. Sounds like u are a follower and had no mind of your own. I had to publish my thesis by my self, they ( my dept .) had a meltdown, they ‘hate’ change and this idea of a paradigm shift was already promoted by me and others years ago.

  14. As a member of the Class of ’64, it has been a long time since I ever contemplated giving Harvard any money. Hence, I cannot in all honesty take a stand against this totalitarian wave by refusing to do that now. We are deep into the “triumph of the therapeutic” here and in campuses in general now. “Being offended” or “hurt” by the “insensitive” is the rallying cry of our modern-day Inquisitors. They are all tears and sympathy, but behind that lies the fist of self-righteous wrath. As the Soviets used to say of Gorbachev, “he smiles, but he has iron teeth.” So now at Harvard and all too many other places.

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