Symbols. Seals. Buildings. Names.
Contentious debate about the history of slavery on college campuses erupted during the past year, provoking universities across the world to examine themselves and the people they honor. At Harvard, those debates have focused on symbols and titles associated, to some degree, with slavery.
Two topics came under particular scrutiny: the title of Harvard’s undergraduate House masters, who led the College’s 12 residential Houses, and the Law School’s official seal, which bore the crest of the former slaveholding Royall family.
Both the title and the seal have since changed.
Last fall, student activists at the Law School lobbied Dean Martha L. Minow to remove the seal—Isaac Royall Jr., who helped endow Harvard’s first law professorship, came from the slaveholding family whose coat of arms was featured on the seal. Ultimately, after months of deliberation, a committee Minow appointed in the wake of students’ demands recommended to the Harvard Corporation that the seal be removed as the school’s official symbol. Why? The seal was not a grounding part of the school’s history, Minow and the committee argued. Isaac Royall Jr. had nothing to do with the founding of the Law School. The decision to use his family’s crest as the school’s seal was arbitrary and worthy of reversal, they argued.
Conversations of the same sentiment occurred at the College, though without the protests. In December, Rakesh Khurana, Dean of Harvard College, announced that the House masters agreed to change their name, arguing that perceived associations with slavery the term “master” invoked could make some uncomfortable; the term House master itself has no known etymological connection to slavery. In February, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Michael D. Smith, revealed their new name: Faculty Dean. Titles send a message, Smith wrote in an email at the time. They “can and should change when such a change serves our mission.”
Though Harvard revoked both the name and the seal, the broader debate is far from over. Some critics have claimed such changes constitute an erasure of the past, that Harvard is not owning up to legacies of slavery at the school. Others argue such changes are merely cosmetic and will do little to improve racial dynamics at Harvard. Now, Harvard is reexamining other sites on campus that may be associated with slavery.
Titles Send a Message
After little public prompting, Harvard’s House masters chose unanimously to change their title, which some people said was associated with slavery. They accepted a new title, Faculty Dean, several months later. In announcing the new title for the leaders of Harvard’s undergraduate Houses, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Michael D. Smith, acknowledged that he had not yet been shown evidence of any connection between the term House master and slavery, but that “titles send a message.”
A Divisive Seal
After about four months of debate and protest, a Law School removed its seal, which featured the crest of the formerly slaveholding Royall family. In a deeply-researched report recommending the change, the Law School committee Minow convened wrote that the seal did not reflect the values of the school and was arbitrarily chosen a century after the school's founding. Both the committee and Faust, though, asserted the case of the Law School seal was particular. “The Committee recognizes that names from the past associated with now-rejected beliefs and practices litter the present, often in places of apparent honor,” they wrote in their report. “We take no position on what, if anything, should be done with them, other than to note that titles and buildings are individual pieces of an institution and are not presented as the official symbol of the institution itself.”
Though both the House master title and the Law School seal changed this spring, the debate about names and symbols persists. Some have wondered about other sites on campus, like Mather House, named for a former Harvard president who was a slaveholder. It seems like a slippery slope, some say, or, perhaps, a refusal to come to terms with the Harvard of the past, which slaves helped build. But Faust defends the decisions to change these names and symbols, calling on Harvard to remember its past, to memorialize and honor the lives of the slaves of Harvard’s history.
In early April, Faust dedicated a small plaque on Wadsworth House, a yellow building named after a former Harvard president, to four slaves who lived and worked on Harvard’s campus: Titus, Venus, Bilhah, and Juba.