Harvard steps may lead down a thorny path
By Evan Lips | December 4, 2015, 5:00 EDT
CAMBRIDGE – The latest call by students at Harvard University for the school to purge terms or symbols deemed offensive by a vocal minority raises what could be a confounding issue: How far will the 379-year-old school go to distance itself from historic figures whose actions and social values we would not approve today?
Recently, adults who live in Harvard undergraduate residences, known as Houses, decided to drop the term ‘master’ from their titles. The these adult leaders, or dorm parents, who were formerly called ‘House Masters’, are currently working with school administrators to pick a different title to describe their role. According to a recent Harvard Crimson report, critics argued that the term “master” is evocative of slavery and racism, making the title offensive.
Meanwhile, at Harvard Law School, activists have been campaigning to remove images of wheat sheaves that are derived from the family crest of Isaac Royall Jr., a slaveholder whose estate endowed the first law professor’s chair.
But if student activists take their arguments to their logical extreme, Harvard may soon have to change much more than the Law School crest or the title bestowed upon dorm parents.
Consider the case of Abbott Lawrence Lowell, the school’s president from 1909 until 1933, for whom Lowell House, one of the school’s residential facilities is named. Some aspects of Lowell’s background were little-known until 2002, when Harvard’s then-President Larry Summers acknowledged the existence of a secret court established by Lowell in 1920 that sought to purge the campus of homosexuals. A series of articles appearing in the Harvard Crimson student newspaper in November 2002 detailed how Lowell ordered an “ad hoc tribunal of administrators” to investigate evidence of homosexual activity, resulting in the expulsion of or disassociation with eight students, a recent graduate and an assistant professor.
An examination of the names of other undergraduate houses shows that many Harvard buildings are named not only after what today we would refer to as homophobes and racists, but also eugenicists and witch-hunt sympathizers.
How far the university elects to go in order to expunge reminders of such characters lurking in its history remains unknown. Below are some of the those that may also become activists’ targets
Lowell House: While the name honors other members of the famous Massachusetts family, Abbott Lowell remains preeminent because of his role as the school’s president. Not only did Lowell seek to expel gays from Harvard, in 1922, he changed a policy that let black students reside in dormitories that also housed whites. At the time, Lowell defended his decision, saying that it was “not a departure from the past to refuse to compel white and colored men to room in the same building.” Six black freshmen were affected by his decision, which the Harvard Board of Overseers unanimously overruled following year.
Cabot House: This residence was named chiefly after benefactor Thomas Dudley Cabot and in honor of his influential family of Boston Brahmins. The Cabot papers, stored at the university, show that the family’s fortune was derived from the slave and rum trade.
Mather House: Named in honor of Increase Mather, a Puritan minister in Boston, then the capital of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and a former Harvard president. Harvard’s website features an historical brief on Mather but omits his links to the notorious Salem Witch Trials. While initially Mather is known to have urged caution ahead of the trials, he did “associate sexual activity with witchcraft” and declined to speak out publicly against the judges involved.
Winthrop House: Honoring John Winthrop, the wealthy Puritan lawyer from England who led colonists to what would become Boston and founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony there. Winthrop’s influence predates Isaac Royall Jr., the Harvard Law School benefactor whose family crest has provoked the uproar there. Student activists outraged at Royall’s family history may be just as outraged at the prominence of Winthrop’s name on campus, as the colonial governor also profited from slavery long before Royall set foot in America. Also, Winthrop oversaw the creation of the first law condoning slavery in North America.
Eliot House: This residence takes its name from longtime Harvard president Charles William Eliot, who led the school from 1869 until 1909. Eliot has been credited with transforming Harvard into a research institution, but his fascination with research and science included support for eugenics – the social philosophy, associated with Nazi Germany, that advocates for the advancement of the human race by increasing reproduction of people with desired traits and limiting the reproduction of those with “undesirable” traits. Records show that Eliot was present in London at the First International Congress of Eugenics in 1912.
“The movement took off rapidly and some of the day’s most socially concerned and liberal intellectuals, such as George Bernard Shaw, Beatrice and Sidney Webb and Harvard President Charles W. Eliot embraced eugenics wholeheartedly,” William Wright concludes in his nature-versus-nurture study, “Born That Way.”
Quincy House: Named after Josiah Quincy III, a 19th century U.S. representative, Boston mayor and university president whose accomplishments include the creation of Faneuil Hall Market, which would later take his name and is now known as Quincy Market. He belonged to a wealthy family that, like so many others during the 1700s, held slaves when the practice was legal in Massachusetts. But records also show that Quincy was against slavery and spoke out against the domination of the government by the “slave power.”
Nevertheless, Quincy is also noted for silencing any campus discussions on the topic at Harvard. At one point he dismissed a faculty member for expressing anti-slavery sentiments, according to historical records obtained by Brown University.
“I…distinctly stated to you that…I held it an incumbent duty of every officer of the Institution to abstain from any act tending to bring within its walls discussions upon questions on which the passions and interests of the community are divided, and warmly engaged,” Quincy reminded one junior instructor, according to the records.
On Tuesday, students learned that they no longer have House Masters in an email sent by Harvard College Dean Rakesh Khurana. Khurana, who serves in the position at Cabot House, told students that “the House Masters have unanimously expressed desire to change their title.”
Rakesh added that the forthcoming new title will be one “that reflects the current realities of the role.”
At Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, President Peter Salovey recently confirmed that administrators there would consider a demand from student activists to change the use of ‘master’ to denote leaders of its residence halls.
Yale activists have also sought to remove the name of John C. Calhoun, a prominent South Carolina political leader of the 19th century who defended slavery, from one of the school’s residential colleges. An online petition launched in July cites a mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, in which blacks were targeted, and laments that “it has taken a tragedy such as the shooting in Charleston to initiate the removal of symbols of white supremacy from public spaces,” in reference to the Confederate battle flag that flew on the state capitol grounds there. The flag was removed after the massacre.
Calhoun is described in the petition as an “extraordinary American statesmen” who also happened to be “one of the most prolific defenders of slavery and white supremacy in American history.”