A name change at Harvard misses point about racism in academia

Story highlights

  • Nicolaus Mills: Harvard College dropping 'house master' designation; this avoids fight over bias, but is no victory against racism
  • Mills: The move trivializes the battles going on at colleges across the country on how to end real racism in academia

Nicolaus Mills is a professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Like a Holy Crusade: Mississippi 1964—The Turning of the Civil Rights Movement in America. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Universities across the country have been struggling in recent weeks with a wave of allegations of racial bias, both systemic and symbolic, in academia. Buildings named after luminaries with racist histories have come into the crosshairs, along with a slew of institutional conventions on campus.

Nicolaus Mills
One high-profile result came this week at Yale: In the face of charges that they were racially insensitive in a dispute over Halloween costumes, Dr. Nicholas Christakis, the master of Silliman College, said he would take a one-semester sabbatical, and his wife, Erika Christakis, the residential college's associate, resigned her teaching post for the spring.
Compared with that controversy, which included a viral video, the announcement of Harvard College Dean Rakesh Khurana that heads of residential housing at Harvard College will no longer be called "house masters" seems relatively mild.
    But its implications are far from mild. In abolishing the term "house master," Harvard has avoided a fight over bias, but whether it represents a victory or distraction in the battle to end racism in America's colleges and universities is another matter.
    "Master" comes with a number of meanings. A master craftsman, a master sergeant, a mastermind all evoke the idea of someone who combines great skill and authority. To abandon these benign, commonplace meanings of master in order to seize upon its association with the pejorative notion of "slave master" is arbitrary at best, especially with regard to Harvard, where house masters have no history of acting like slave masters.
    Sadly, the principal effect of Harvard's decision and the publicity surrounding it has been to trivialize the battles going on at colleges across the country on how to end racism in academia. What we have instead is a no-risk protest over a name that has ended up challenging nothing fundamental. The name change won't bring more minority students to Harvard or improve the support systems and course offerings for minority students already there.
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    The irony is that Harvard's decision comes just as its president, Drew Gilpin Faust, an acclaimed scholar of the Civil War era, has published a compelling New York Review of Books essay, "John Hope Franklin: Race & the Meaning of America," in which she takes on the question of how history can be used to right past racial wrongs.
    The occasion for Faust's essay is the 100th anniversary of the birth of African-American historian John Hope Franklin, who died in 2009. A Harvard Ph.D., Franklin was the embodiment of a scholar who sought to make his work relevant to society at large.
    In addition to writing his now-classical 1958 study, "From Slavery to Freedom," Franklin worked with Thurgood Marshall and the lawyers who prepared the case against segregation in Brown v. Board of Education. Later he did a report for the U.S. Civil Rights Commission on the history of civil rights in America.
    When members of the Civil Rights Commission criticized Franklin for not producing a more moderate report, he replied, "I am afraid that I cannot 'tidy' up the history that Americans themselves have made." It is in this refusal to gloss over the racism of our past that Faust finds Franklin's greatest contribution, and she closes her poignant essay by addressing how today we must "unite history with policy and meaningful change."
    Faust's sentiments echo those of Columbia University's Eric Foner, another acclaimed historian of the Civil War era, who earlier this year wrote a New York Times op-ed titled "Why Reconstruction Matters," in which he insisted that understanding America's failure to provide sufficient help to the freed slaves after the Civil War forces us to think of what we want to do now to achieve a racially just society.
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    Had Faust and Foner written their essays in the 1960s, when students were struggling to desegregate Woolworth lunch counters and, in the case of the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer, to register black voters, there would be a seamless connection between their sentiments and work being done on the ground.
    The Harvard campaign to end the use of the term house master is a different matter. Within the university, the campaign had widespread support from faculty and administrators who have not liked being labeled as masters. "I have not felt personally comfortable with the title," said Harvard dean Rakesh Khurana, who is now "co-head" of Cabot House.
    But in comparison with the activities of students in the 1960s, there is something minor about the Harvard naming campaign. It is the antithesis of cutting edge. We are reminded that in the 1960s students took on the major battles for civil rights, and that today so many student racial battles have been internal to the university, focusing on smaller racial slights known as microaggressions.
    To be fair to Harvard, it has also concerned itself with issues that go beyond the house master question. The college has issued a 37-page report by its diversity and inclusion group calling on Harvard to deal with a wide range of problems, including departmental offerings and faculty hiring.
    The Harvard Crimson, Harvard's student newspaper, is filled with stories about good-faith efforts on the college's part to make student life more inclusive. Just prior to Thanksgiving, dozens of Harvard students, along with faculty and administrators, joined a rally in Porter Square in Cambridge to support student activism across the country.
    But for the moment, it's the house master story making headlines across the country, and it's providing ammunition to critics who believe today's college racial battles are rooted in private hypersensitivities rather than a fundamental struggle for racial justice. At a time when political correctness is alive and well, this result is a distraction neither Harvard nor higher education needs.