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New Harvard Class Explores the School's Legacy of Slavery

Harvard's Graduate School of Education is located to the west of Harvard Yard.
Harvard's Graduate School of Education is located to the west of Harvard Yard. By Truong L. Nguyen
By Paton D. Roberts, Crimson Staff Writer

A new Harvard Graduate School of Education class is developing a series of case studies as a part of the University's Initiative on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery, which began in 2019.

Students enrolled in “Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery: A Normative Case-Study Writing Initiative” — taught by HGSE professor Meira Levinson — are creating case studies and teaching guides that will focus on the “complicated and ambiguous ethical choices” departments and institutions face, according to the course description.

Levinson serves on the initiative's curriculum subcommittee, which is examining how educators and students can best approach their study of Harvard’s historical relationship with slavery.

“We all have learning to do, and we can't expect students to learn things if, as faculty and staff and alumni, we remain ignorant,” Levinson said. “The learning needs to be much more broad-based.”

HGSE student Catherine G. Huang was drawn to the topic of universities’ ties to slavery after her experience as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia during the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally, where white nationalist groups marched in Charlottesville.

"I think what's unique about this class is that it's not necessarily solution-oriented," Huang said. "It really leans into the uncertainty that generates new possibilities of action, because they don't know what exactly is the right thing to do just now."

Huang also said she values the complexity of the ethical dilemmas students discuss in the course, such as what universities can do with endowments obtained through unethical labor practices.

“What should we do with a university's endowment if that endowment was historically a direct profit of enslaved laborers’ work or forced labor, plantations, or things that they produced?” she said.

Huang said she hopes for broader intellectual participation from Harvard affiliates on the issues covered by the course, noting that “only some people are doing the work” to grapple with the University’s historical connection to slavery right now.

“What I would like to see is that responsibility being shared and action being taken by larger and wider coalitions of Harvard affiliates,” she said.

Levinson said she intends for the case studies produced in the course to be used in and outside of the University, noting that none of the topics addressed in the course are unique to Harvard.

“We think that Harvard can learn from other universities and that other universities can learn from Harvard,” Levinson said. “We're all part of a much bigger conversation about the questions about universities’ responsibility.”

—Staff writer Paton D. Roberts can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @paton_dr.

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