Harvard’s New Diversity Veto: “I Don’t Feel I Belong”

Harvard has just launched a University-wide Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging. “Inclusion” is a solidly established campus buzzword. But until now, Harvard’s overseers and sprawling diversity bureaucracy have not thought it necessary to put the feel-good word “belonging” in the title.

Harvard President Drew G. Faust has convened the Task Force to examine ways to help members of the “increasingly diverse community feel that they truly belong.” The goal is to make all 29,000 Harvard students feel “included” and “solicit ideas about ways to strengthen our shared commitment to building a community in which everyone has the opportunity to thrive.”

Related: Harvard to Supply Life’s Meaning to Students

And wait. Hasn’t Harvard spent a quarter of a century – maybe half a century – making inclusion the primary goal of institutional change? The Task Force’s organizing statement announces, “Harvard has a plethora of diversity officers, programs, and initiatives.”

Does anyone at Harvard still know that plethora means excess, overabundance, surplus, glut, surfeit, profusion? I mean: does anyone still take Greek at Harvard?

As with other Ivy League universities, two years of race-fueled protests and threats have cowed university administrators. The Black Lives Matter banner and Rainbow flag fly over the First Parish Church in Harvard Square. In a December 2014 open letter to Harvard students, College dean Rakesh Khurana proclaimed, “I have watched and listened in awe of our students, faculty, and staff who have come together to declare with passion, grace, and growing resolve that ‘Black Lives Matter’ and to call for justice, for ally-ship, and for hope.”

(Note what happened. Khurana gave Harvard’s backing to a controversial and aggressive racial group that many who fully support racial justice want to hold at arm’s length.)

Related: Asian Americans Move Against Harvard

“The diversity of our student body at Harvard College should be on the forefront of this paradigm shift,” Khurana announced. Two years later, President Faust and Dean Khurana are making that shift.

The idea of belonging raises the ante from mere inclusion. Accommodating the feelings of students of color and others who don’t feel right about, say, the American flag, white instructors, Eurocentric courses, or standard grammar will take a great deal of institutional work since disdain for authority and privilege is a calling card for many protesters.

No doubt, in those elegant offices overlooking Brattle Street and in Massachusetts Hall, another thick coat of Diversity Varnish will make everyone feel good. For whole offices, the Task Force will provide an ongoing sense of identity, purpose and leadership. Plethora gets lots of $120,000 jobs with fab benefits. Plethora gets new action workshops to attend. Plethora has grant deadlines and federal titles to worry over; it has initiatives to initiate.

The Primacy of Feelings

Listen to the ambitions of Harvard’s appointed diversity mongers interviewed in the Harvard Gazette. One of the Task Force’s three co-chairs, professor of education and government Danielle Allen, wants to ensure “thriving for all” so “all feel that they belong”:

Achieving a sense of belonging for all members of the Harvard community is an important measure of whether people are thriving. Even our efforts to be inclusive — to recruit a diverse faculty, students, and staff — will be strengthened by greater success at ensuring thriving for all. When all feel that they belong, we will feel the benefit of the full application of their talents to our shared problems and questions.

Archon Fung, the Academic Dean and Ford Foundation Professor of Democracy and Citizenship at the Harvard Kennedy School, says, “At its best, life at Harvard is transformative for the people who are here, because they experience new ideas, encounter people with different perspectives and experiences, and become members of communities of learning and exploration.”

Harvard Muslims Feel Uncomfortable 

Fluent in Harvard’s white noise – transformative, different perspectives and experiences, communities of learning and exploration – Fung continues: “President Faust’s charge had a very broad conception of diversity that includes not just race and class and gender but also different levels of physical ability, religion, different ideologies, and political views.”

What does diversity of physical ability, religion, ideologies, and political views entail for Fung? “I know from talking to Muslim students that many of them feel uncomfortable and isolated and at some risk even in our University and our School environments. That’s a dimension that merits particular attention,” he says. This covers religion, I guess. But here’s the kicker. Fung maintains, “Without self-conscious efforts to create more inclusive environments, we reproduce behaviors and practices and a culture that is suited probably to people who’ve been here for a long time, but not suited to the different kinds of people who now are part of the community.”

“Not suited to the different kinds of people” now at Harvard? What does this mean, Professor Fung? It reads to me that you are covertly or not-so-covertly challenging Anglo-Protestant inheritances and European legacies that have built Harvard into what it is today, declaring them unsuitable for newcomers. With or without intentional malice, you seem to be undermining and diminishing Western heritage.

What do you have in mind as an alternative specifically and in detail? After exorcising those behaviors and practices and culture, and I assume, freed from white, Christian, straight male shackles, what’s next?

I can be sure you don’t like the Harvard Clubs nor the evident tendency for students of many backgrounds to self-segregate by class, background, and intellect. But what do you mean by transformative? What precisely needs to be transformed?

At Harvard, there are few real achievement problems, with a few exceptions, and those that do exist, are often readily fixed. The degree to which undergraduate oversight has advanced at Harvard over the last half century is remarkable and laudable.

Harvard remains the cream of the crop, and it’s good at what it does. Diversity at Harvard is as fait accompli as it can humanly be. Not only has Harvard widened access with astonishing speed. Harvard and other leading universities have re-graded the playing field to give advantages to just about anyone who can play a diversity card.

In this already diverse community of winners, then, something else is going on with the Task Force. The Task Force seems like another ascriptive power grab – a paradigm shift filled with ill will toward Western culture and its American vernaculars. I may be wrong, Professor Fung. Please advise.

Many Harvard opportunists – Fung and Khurana would be good examples seek to dispossess phantom exclusion and forcibly refigure the past. Not to comply with this revisionism is to hate and possibly run afoul of the law. To be a bad person.

If you advocate, defend, study and revere a curriculum or culture said to be suited to people who’ve been here for a long time but not suited to the different kinds of people who now are part of the community you need self-criticism and re-education.

Harvard’s faculties and alumni, acting in good faith and with vast generosity, have done just about everything that can be done for decades to broaden opportunity and access for all. The loudest complaints often come from the students and professoriate that have been carefully groomed and admitted on a preferential basis.

How Will This Accommodation End?

No doubt the Task Force could lead Harvard’s 29,000 high performers — competitive, status-conscious, ambitious, and pursuing different courses of study — to definitive, final Harvard-quality answers about inequality, social conflict, inclusion, and most touchingly, belonging.

The Task Force could declare Harvard cured of its obsession and absolved of its manifold sins. See you later, Plethora, and thanks for doing such a good job. But I doubt very much that’s how this absurd charade, being launched at the expense of a great institution, will end.


  • Gilbert T. Sewall

    Gilbert T. Sewall, director of the American Textbook Council, is co-author of After Hiroshima: The United States Since 1945 and editor of The Eighties: A Reader. He is also a non-fiction book reviewer for Publishers Weekly.

6 thoughts on “Harvard’s New Diversity Veto: “I Don’t Feel I Belong”

  1. Oh my goodness! A rock & a hard place! An irresistible force and immovable object!! What to do? What to do??

    I, myself, don’t feel included — I don’t feel as though I really belong to the Harvard community. (envision big fat tears, rolling down my face!) Luckily, when the Task Force asks me, “What will it take to make you feel better?”, my answer will be twofold: money (money always helps me feel better! large denominations much, much better!) and, of course, More People Like Me on Campus (students & teachers & leaders & grounds crew, of course)

    Problem solved!

    But wait just a minute. If they fill the campus with More People Like Me it’s possible they’ll have fewer People Like You, and then you’ll feel ‘unbelonged’! Oh No!

    Well then, perhaps they can fill the campus with More People Like Us? That means, though, that they’ll definitely be fewer People Like Them! What then? “Them” will feel seriously ‘unbelonged’ as Them will be surrounded by Us, and Us is definitely not Them!

    But I see how this is going. I began with lots more People Like Me (and I felt really belonged) …I compromised to accept People Like Us (and felt semi-belonged) ….and now I’m facing the Unbelonging Hell of More People Like Not Us which means I come full circle back to Big Fat Tears and Unbelonging.

    I guess that leaves Money. Harvard would seem to have enough to go round. Enough, that is, unless People Like You want More which is what People Like Me Require!

    This seems like a very challenging challenge, it does. But surely Harvard can figure it all out. After all, padding all the hard spots and smoothing all the rough patches and safety-proofing the college experience so people’s bellies don’t feel all woozy — that IS what a Harvard education is all about…isn’t it??

  2. “Belongingness” is a relative proposition, both in terms of how hard an institution tries to include all its members, and also in terms of how welcome those members (coming from different groups) tend to feel. James Meredith was not welcomed at Ole Miss, nor would it have been surprising for him to feel that he did not belong (although feeling welcome was probably not his goal nor his expectation). Do we not think that he was treated badly?

    A friend’s sister was the only female physics grad student at MIT during the ’60’s. She was constantly being dismissed, excluded, and taken for a cleaning woman — not by everyone she met, but by many. Was she being oversensitive to feel discouraged by this?

    At the other end of this continuum, some students today appear to feel that if they don’t see signs that recognize their (gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation) frequently on campus, they are being excluded. How much effort, and what kind of effort, must the institution exert in order to bolster their feelings of acceptance? It’s certainly possible for students to be unreasonable in their expectations, but it’s also not a silly weakness to point out when real exclusion is going on.

    An interesting simultaneous effort is the one to introduce the first statue of a woman in NYC’s Central Park. The dozens of statues (all of men) that are currently there include several of men who did not contribute much, other than possibly money. Is it unreasonable to expect that Susan B. Anthony be the next Central Park statue?

  3. I noted the following sentence about Harvard Muslims: “Without self-conscious efforts to create more inclusive environments, we reproduce behaviors and practices and a culture that is suited probably to people who’ve been here for a long time, but not suited to the different kinds of people who now are part of the community.”

    So, if Harvard Muslims feel that Sharia is preferable to the US Constitution, then should Harvard allow Sharia, in order to provide them a ‘more inclusive environment’?

  4. An excellent critique, striking just the right notes of scorn and and sarcasm.

    One aspect of the recent diversity & inclusion theater that is overlooked is that these are kids we are talking about. Teenagers, adolescents. It is the nature of adolescence to feel anxiety over “belonging.” Regardless of time or place, gender or race. Encouraging kids to ascribe external causes to their natural internal turmoil does them and us an enormous disservice.

    No amount of white noise (an excellent description) can alter the fundamental character of all the wailing and teeth-gnashing, which is simply rampant, unchecked adolescence. Harvard indulges these kids as though they were so many Anthony Fremonts in The Twilight Zone.

    One quibble: Harvard students can no longer justly be called the “cream.” 18 year-olds who arrive in the Yard already aggrieved and oppressed by a place they have just set foot onto are no one’s idea of cream.

    1. An outstanding reference to good old Anthony…and a perfect fit here in our own Twilight Zone!

      “But it’s good that you’re making it snow, Anthony, – it’s real good. And tomorrow – tomorrow’s going to be a real good day!”

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