Dec 15, 2023

pluralism, redux

Danielle Allen, who sat on Harvard’s 2018 Presidential Taskforce on Inclusion and Belonging, in today’s Washington Post:

While we acknowledged historical patterns in our report, we did not dwell on the theme of historical injustices. We did not see the challenge in front of us as “white supremacy”; we never used a vocabulary of that kind. Our faces were set to the future. We saw in the rich diversity of our campus an opportunity — a chance to achieve a higher level of excellence powered by intense engagements across a vast range of viewpoints.

We knew this endeavor would require addressing challenges of emergent conflict. We recommended cultivating “Skills for Difficult Conversations” to “equip everyone on campus — students, staff, and faculty and academic personnel — with skills to engage across difference, support freewheeling debate, productively navigate difficult conversations, and make space for minority viewpoints (whether of religious students, conservative students, or students from underrepresented identity groups or backgrounds).” We wanted our university to take the lead in developing the requisite education — in argument, in moral reasoning, in civic education.

So why has my campus — and others, too — stumbled as badly as it has?

It’s a complex question, probably with multiple causes. But for starters, in Harvard’s case, three themes in our report went largely overlooked by university administrators as they began to pursue implementation — our focus on academic freedom, on the need to make space for religious identity and on the need for greater political diversity on our campus. Older paradigms that focused only on some groups as marginalized, as opposed to all groups as sources of potential and perspective, came back to the fore. Only on Sept. 1 of this year did the university release new nondiscrimination and bullying policies that used our very broad categorizations for diversity. They have not yet fully made their way into our campus culture.

Second, and even more important, the 2020 murder of George Floyd and intense surge of anti-racism work that followed it led to the adoption of vocabularies and frameworks that made it difficult for a forward-looking pluralism to make headway.

I am as against racism as anyone, but I believe we can all be better together based on a positive vision. Yes, it is necessary to tackle challenges such as implicit bias. But, counter to the anti-racism agenda, we cannot create a framework for inclusion and belonging that is focused on accusation. As was the case in our 2018 report, the conceptual center of such a framework in our campus communities should be excellence, and what each and every one of us can contribute to that, for the sake of increased benefit to society.