Harvard Looks to the Ivy League for Help With Diversity and Inclusion

Posted By Monica Harvin on January 15, 2016 at 2:15 pm
Harvard Looks to the Ivy League for Help With Diversity and Inclusion
John Harvard Monument at Harvard College.

A recent report by Harvard’s College Working Group on Diversity and Inclusion highlights areas identified by students, faculty or administrators that need improvement for increasing diversity and fostering a sense of inclusion. In addition to a self-evaluation, the Working Group conducted visits in late 2014 to peer institutions – Brown, Columbia, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania, Yale, Cornell and Dartmouth, speaking with a range of stakeholders from student leaders to faculty and administrators.

The researchers found a variety of diversity models at the other Ivy League schools, some more effective than others, and created recommendations to adapt more successful models to Harvard. However, some of the key findings point to weaknesses across the Ivy League schools, with recommendations being made to fill these gaps.

Cultural diversity competency for administration and students

The Working Group failed to find a peer institution with requirements for administration competency in issues of cultural diversity and sensitivity. With the exception of the University of Pennsylvania, which requires a diversity course as part of General Education requirements, the Working Group also did not observe any similar efforts to engage students on concepts of diversity through required coursework.

In response, one of the group’s recommendations for immediate action calls for cultural competency training for all student-facing staff and faculty members. This may still leave out staff who do not interact with students but shape the university’s image, programs or other aspects of student life.

For students, the recommendations were less concrete, with a general push toward identifying, strengthening and increasing course offerings on diversity.

Mentoring and mental health services for underserved populations

They also identified serious challenges faced across universities for addressing student mental health for underrepresented populations, including:

  • “lack of staff diversity and perceived difficulty among underrepresented groups in relating to staff;
  • limited professional experience with underserved populations;
  • culturally-based stigmas regarding mental health treatment, most significantly in Asian, Latino, African American, and international communities.”

At Dartmouth, Brown and Penn, they found different iterations for addressing these challenges, including sociocultural advising, partnerships between centers that serve minority groups and university counseling services, and peer mentoring programs, to name a few. The group made a recommendation for immediate action to address counseling and psychological services for underserved groups at Harvard, but immediately afterward, students voiced concerns that this needs to happen sooner than later.

They reported, “It is clear that the programs having the best impacts make clinical support available to students throughout the campus in non-intimidating ways. Such support addresses particular cultural needs, and associated stigmas, even in the absence of staff who share students’ backgrounds and identities.” In addition, staff training and adequate recognition in performance reviews are needed for the faculty of color and others who provide these services to students.

Harvard’s diversity centers underground

The Working Group identified concerns about cultural centers at the other Ivy Leagues, noting that far-removed locations on campus may “send a message to minoritized and other students that diversity is peripheral to the university community’s areas of focus.”

At Harvard, the researchers received similar feedback, with students noting that all diversity-focused centers are underground, and according to one student, “out of sight and seem inaccessible” sends a message that the university does not value these diversity initiatives.

Cultural centers are also principal places where art and imagery from non-traditional student groups are often displayed, making students feel more identified with and comfortable in these surroundings. One of the group’s immediate recommendations included having more diverse art displayed at the university.

Student and faculty diversity initiatives

Each university they visited had a diversity initiative put in place in the last five years, noting though that some were created in response to high-profile events that occurred on campus.

Recognizing that diversity initiatives cannot successfully operate in a vacuum or as standalone divisions, the Working Group said, “structural accountability, robust communication among offices and diffuse leadership, and face-to-face engagement with students are essential to facilitating a healthy environment.” They went on to say that relying on a single person or entity only serves to “compound problems by exempting critical administrative offices from shared responsibility.”

Though not studied by the Working Group, a recent GoodCall article notes that models combining accountability and coordination across the university on issues of diversity are in place at other New England schools like the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. In addition, examples beyond the Ivy League abound of universities that have successfully achieved high levels of diversity in both students and faculty.

These examples hold lessons for schools willing to think outside of their traditional models to create environments that are welcoming for underserved student populations, and which ensure that all students attending their institutions have a fair chance at succeeding.

Monica Harvin
Monica is a GoodCall contributing editor, covering personal finance and education. She's also GoodCall's diversity expert, with a master's degree in Latin American studies from UCLA and bachelor's degree in history from the University of Florida.

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