Harvard Showed Up Late to Its Own Black Graduation

On Tuesday Harvard held its first Black Commencement. What took so long? By Caleb Gayle

Photo via iStock/marvinh

On Tuesday, Harvard University, in partnership with the Harvard Black Graduate Student Alliance, hosted the university’s first Black Commencement. The Fast Life Yungstaz song “Swag Surfin” rang out with anthemic vigor as graduate students celebrated the end of an arduous academic journey. If the students’ families are anything like mine, someone undoubtedly arrived late–clanging into their seats and making the type of entrance that turns heads and causes a compulsory clearing of throats in an attempt to muffle the awkwardness.

But what stood out about this black graduation was that the tardiest attendee was not a clumsy family member. It was Harvard University.

Much has been made of Harvard’s first Black Commencement, but there has been little discussion about why it took the school so long to host it and what that says about the culture of inclusivity that Harvard is so keen on promoting. While Harvard is being (and will continue to be) celebrated for the ceremony, it was black students who drove the issue and organized the event.

Black Commencements, which recognize both the unique contribution of black students and express the desire of the university to cultivate a diverse learning environment, are not new. Down in New York, for example, Columbia University goes even further by hosting commencements for students from First-Generation, Latinx, LGBTQ, Asian, and Native backgrounds in addition to a Black Commencement. The Office of Multicultural Affairs does this in order to “celebrate the accomplishments of students who have engaged in one or many of Columbia’s diverse communities.” At Stanford, the tradition of black commencements has stood for 40 years.

Harvard’s late embrace of black commencements is only the most recent illustration of how far the school lags on issues of race. One need not look any further than the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s most recent Diversity and Inclusion Report. It shows that from 2010 to 2015, blacks and Hispanics made up a mere 15 percent of the students in the Kennedy School’s signature program, the Master’s degree in Public Policy. This year, that has fallen to a dismal 11 percent. Compare that with the UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, where black and Hispanic students account for 27 percent of the student population, and you get a sense of what Harvard’s emphasis on diversity looks like in action.

When I arrived on campus, I was well aware of the relics from Harvard’s rocky history with race relations. Until March of last year, the Harvard shield bore the crest of a slaveholding family. And until February 2016, administrators of the esteemed Harvard College residential houses were still called House Masters, recalling the trappings of slavery. To students of color like me, these data and these legacies loom large and make the campus less welcoming.

Harvard’s first Black Commencement was undoubtedly a celebratory day and a milestone in the school’s history. But now it is time for Harvard, the institution, and not the students, to catch up to its peers. The school should have led the way with a Black Commencement many years ago. Instead it placed the burden for racial progress on the backs of students of color and then loudly stumbled into their graduation.

Caleb Gayle is a writer and a joint degree candidate at the Harvard Business School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, where he attends as a Paul & Daisy Soros Fellow and Sheila C. Johnson Fellow at the Harvard Center for Public Leadership.