Harvard University’s announcement at the end of April that it would invest $100 million to redress its links to slavery drew flurries of headlines and mild praise from Black scholars.
It was an acceptable first step, they said, as Harvard simultaneously released an extensive report documenting the “integral” role the horrors of slavery played in shaping the institution. Other top-ranked universities have also acknowledged their slavery connections, notably Brown University, which in 2006 started the movement with a report exploring topics like how slaves made money for the institution, funding that became the root of many of its assets, including its endowment that now totals almost $7 billion.
Harvard’s position as the country's most eminent higher education institution helps elevate these issues, Black academics say.
However, they are also quick to say that nothing Harvard is pledging now is groundbreaking.
President Lawrence Bacow accepted a series of recommendations included in the report, written by more than a dozen university professors. Among them were that Harvard should bring faculty from historically Black colleges and universities to the Ivy League campus for visiting appointments. Not all suggestions were specific. For instance, the report states, Harvard should “support historically marginalized children and youth from birth through high school and college.”
But faculty partnerships have long existed between institutions, and the $100 million for an endowment fund and other measures represents less than 0.2% of its mammoth $52 billion endowment.
Harvard directly contributing money to HBCUs, or helping to build their research or fundraising infrastructures, would be far more effective, the Black scholars say. Some of them also suggested the institution overhaul curricula, weaving in how slavery is infused into many aspects of American history.
“There’s nothing new or magic about what they’re doing,” said John Rosenthall, president of the Tougaloo College Research and Development Foundation, an HBCU advocacy organization.
“This is not enough, when every African American was impacted by slavery, whether our parents were actual slaves or not. The whole system of slavery and impact is still reverberating through the African American community.”
What have other colleges done so far?
In 2006, Brown “stood alone” after the release of its report illuminating its ties to slavery, said Corey Walker, director of Wake Forest University’s African American studies program. Brown, led then by its first Black president, Ruth Simmons, was widely viewed to have created a watershed moment that compelled similarly prestigious universities to publicly delve into the sordid aspects of their histories.
Fifteen years later, Brown published a new edition of the report, citing the racial justice movement spurred by the 2020 death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by Minneapolis police, and pandemic-fueled inequities.
Many universities did follow Brown in publicly calling out their ties to slavery, including Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C., which committed in 2019 to raise $400,000 a year to benefit descendants of hundreds of slaves who were sold to ensure the institution’s financial security. In May, William & Mary, in Virginia, unveiled a campus memorial featuring the names of 94 people the college enslaved, marking how it had relied on their labor for hundreds of years.
Nearly 100 U.S. and international institutions have also joined a consortium, Universities Studying Slavery, based out of the University of Virginia.
Colleges, however, have historically resisted certain forms of reparations, said Kirt von Daacke, assistant dean of the University of Virginia's College of Arts & Sciences and the consortium’s managing director. The term itself has politically charged connotations, von Daacke said. The public in some cases perceives reparations to be “a blank check, written to those who may or may not deserve it,” he said.
The idea has also not generated widespread support beyond academia. Not even 30% of Americans backed government-paid reparations in a 2019 Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll.
Institutions may be reluctant to green-light these measures, von Daacke said, for fear of ruffling potential wealthy, White donors who oppose reparations. Colleges may also be concerned they would open themselves up to the type of litigation that has been brought against corporations, he said.
A handful of colleges have set up reparations programs, like one from the Virginia Theological Seminary, which last year began sending cash payments to descendants of Black people forced to work there during the slave and Jim Crow eras.
What is Harvard doing?
Harvard hasn’t completely made clear how it will invest the $100 million. A spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
Bacow, however, in a public response agreed with all of the recommendations in the April report, which identifies dozens of major institutional donors and leaders who enslaved people during Harvard's history. Harvard officials in the 19th and 20th centuries “promoted ‘race science’ and eugenics and conducted abusive ‘research,’ including the photographing of enslaved and subjugated human beings,” the report also states.
In addition to setting up faculty partnerships with HBCUs, Harvard will subsidize juniors from HBCUs to study on its campus for a term or academic year.
“These faculty and student visits would promote intellectual exchange and research collaborations between Harvard and HBCUs, particularly in STEM fields,” the report states, noting a potential to reduce students’ college costs by offering them financial aid.
While this may have some limited benefits for HBCU academics and students, these institutions have far greater needs, said John Pierre, chancellor of the Southern University Law Center, part of the historically Black Southern University System, in Louisiana.
Historically Black institutions have often been underfunded, Pierre said, pointing to Tennessee State University, an HBCU that a review found did not receive up to $544 million in state support owed to it over several decades. And they’re challenged in other ways — HBCUs were targeted by a string of bomb threats this year.
The “simple” student exchanges Harvard proposes don't suffice, Pierre said. These deals should be more of a two-way street, he said. HBCU faculty should learn from Harvard’s scholars, but also the institution should give to HBCUs' research and fundraising initiatives, he said.
He went further: Harvard should simply give money to historically Black institutions.
“You can’t just take the cream on top,” Pierre said.
Rosenthall, of the Tougaloo College foundation, envisioned Harvard convening a broad research summit that would bring together HBCU and Harvard scholars on the Ivy League campus. This would have lasting effects, compared to a one-off semester for faculty, he said.
Harvard could also forge mentor-mentee relationships with HBCU fundraising arms, and it could share strategies or even contribute to the institutions' infrastructure, like upgrading the software they use, Rosenthall said.
Walker, of Wake Forest, said he thinks Harvard should “reorganize its very foundations of knowledge.” It should go beyond “the glitz and glamour” of a report, he said. It should entwine into its curricula how slavery informed contemporary postsecondary teachings and provided the base for American capitalism. Enslaved people and the work they did transformed the U.S. into a financial behemoth, and today's methods of professional management can be traced back to plantations, he said.
Harvard’s lead and focus on this would help influence education elsewhere, Walker said.
“Slavery is not ancillary, it is constitutive, to everything,” he said.