Harvard pledges $100 million in slavery redress

Three-year review details racism permeating history of top US institution, but some raise concern at too meagre a response

April 27, 2022
John Harvard statue
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Harvard University has issued a 130-page report affirming the historical ties of the institution and its benefactors to slavery and white supremacy, and promised to spend $100 million (£80 million) in compensatory actions.

Slavery was “integral to Harvard”, the university says in the compilation, the latest in a series of comprehensive public acknowledgment exercises by several dozen institutions in the US and abroad.

“Harvard benefited from and in some ways perpetuated practices that were profoundly immoral,” the university’s president, Lawrence Bacow, said in summarising the conclusions of the faculty committee study he requested in 2019.

“Consequently,” he said, “I believe we bear a moral responsibility to do what we can to address the persistent corrosive effects of those historical practices on individuals, on Harvard, and on our society.”

The announcement, however, generated significant scepticism, especially over Professor Bacow’s pledge to create another committee that will be given $100 million to “properly reckon with our past” through actions that include teaching, research and community service. Complaints centred on the amount being just a fraction of Harvard’s world-leading endowment, and on the expectation of delivering the recompense to recipients within the university structure.

“It’s presumptuous and disingenuous,” said William Darity, a professor of public policy, and director of the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity, at Duke University, “for institutions like Harvard, with a $53 billion endowment, to call a petty $100 million fund ‘reparations’.”

Harvard and similar institutions instead should form the necessary political coalition to lobby and petition Congress for a comprehensive national programme of reparations, Professor Darity told Times Higher Education.

The Harvard report describes the Ivy League institution’s profiting from slavery from the 17th through to the 19th centuries, affirming a reality that had already become broadly known in recent years. Harvard faculty and staff directly enslaved more than 70 black people since its founding in 1636, it said.

The report also describes the university growing wealthy and globally prominent from slavery-enriched donors, some of whom have been honoured by name on the Harvard campus. The report also points out the institution’s role in promoting ideas of white supremacy long after the Civil War ended legalised slavery.

It cited two Harvard presidents in that regard – Charles William Eliot and Abbott Lawrence Lowell, who held office for more than six decades from 1869 to 1933. The first promoted physical examinations aimed at racial engineering, and the latter excluded Jewish and black students, the report said.

None of that is mentioned in their official online biographies, which instead credit them with achievements that include transforming Harvard into a modern research university and bringing economic diversity to campus residential life. Numerous campus buildings and professorships at Harvard also have been named after slave-holders and those who profited from the practice, and some still retain those identifications.

The report of the Presidential Committee on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery offers suggestions that include the creation of long-term partnerships between Harvard and historically Black colleges and universities that would include visiting faculty appointments.

Harvard also should devote more resources to preserve and digitise African American history, and honour enslaved people through “a permanent and imposing physical memorial, convening space, or both”, it said.

Harvard in 2016 did place a plaque on Wadsworth House, its second-oldest building, commemorating four people enslaved by two of the university’s presidents, although that generated some complaints that its writing was too small to read without close examination.


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