Harvard’s Not Forcing Students to Take a ‘Check Your Privilege’ Seminar

There's no set agenda for this type of mandatory programming during orientation.

Contrary to reports circling around the internet, officials from Harvard University’s Kennedy School said Thursday that they’re not implementing a mandatory “check your privilege” program during next year’s orientation.

The reports, based on the idea that white, wealthy students attending Harvard would be “forcefully” made more aware of their status in society and the power that it wields, picked up steam after media outlets re-posted comments from a Tumblr blog by a student group called HKS Speak Out, which claimed the Kennedy School had agreed to add the new “required” privilege training component when welcoming newcomers:

“The Dean committed to…[having] a required session during orientation for incoming HKS students and [making] available related sessions throughout the year…the administration has officially expressed its desire to collaborate with us on designing a privilege training component for orientation week for every HKS degree program.”

The internet was quick to react with the following headlines derived from the group’s blog post: Harvard’s Kennedy School Adds Privilege-Checking to New-Student OrientationHarvard’s Kennedy School Will Make White Privilege Training Mandatory For Orientation‘Privilege-Checking’ Now Part of Orientation at Harvard’s Kennedy SchoolStudents at Harvard’s Kennedy School Will Now Be Required to Check Their Privilege; as well as a heated debate on Bill O’Reilly’s show.

But on Thursday, a Kennedy School official said these reports are false. While school officials have talked with the group about it, they have told the students “categorically” that they’re not mandating a seminar during orientation focused on people’s privilege, according to Doug Gavel, director of media relations for the Kennedy School. When asked about what agreement had been reached between the school and the student group, Gavel said the following:

“We have certainly engaged in discussions with this student group on this issue and have told the students categorically that the school has no intention of offering a session on ‘power and privilege.’ We have conveyed that we are committed to revamping our current session on diversity offered at orientation to something that will help students better understand the broad impact of identity on their decision making as future policy makers and equip them with the tools necessary to engage in constructive dialogue. … Learning to have constructive conversations in the context of differences in race, gender, cultural background, political viewpoints and many other perspectives is important in any graduate school, particularly one dedicated to preparing its students to be effective leaders and policymakers.”

The confusion started after media outlets took the group’s posting verbatim from its website, but did not contact Harvard administrators to verify the information, Gavel said. “We look forward to continuing to work with our faculty and students to provide the most valuable learning opportunities in this area,” he said, adding that the school offers “a number of opportunities” for learning about issues of diversity.

For months, HKS Speak Out has been pushing for a mandatory “privilege” orientation. At one point, the group posted a petition online urging people to join their fight to get the topic of discussion on the school’s radar in time for next year. The group demanded privilege training to examine components of race, gender, socioeconomic class, sexual orientation, international status, and power differentials for every incoming HKS student and faculty member starting August 2014. “As policy leaders who will make decisions that affect many communities, including historically underrepresented communities, both in the U.S. and across the globe, we have a responsibility to understand these communities’ perspectives and the historical, social, and economic obstacles they face,” the group said.