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Harvard Launches Culture Lab Innovation Fund Initiative

Massachusetts Hall houses University President Lawrence S. Bacow's office.
Massachusetts Hall houses University President Lawrence S. Bacow's office. By Kai R. McNamee
By Amanda Y. Su, Crimson Staff Writer

The Office of the President and the University’s Office for Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging officially launched a joint initiative called the Harvard Culture Lab Innovation Fund to promote diversity and inclusion, the University announced in an email Wednesday.

The fund will award competitive grants up to $15,000 or more to pilot and scale ideas that address and solve critical challenges regarding diversity and inclusion at Harvard.

The initiative is now accepting project applications through the beginning of December from teams of Harvard students, staff, faculty, postdoctoral researchers, and academic personnel. The selection process includes a written application followed by a pitch competition.

“We’re going to try to tap into not the entrepreneurial spirit that is tied to personal wealth, but the entrepreneurial spirit at Harvard that is tied to a kind of common wealth — the campus culture and the sense of community that we have here,” John S. Wilson Jr., senior advisor and strategist to Harvard’s president, said in an interview.

The theme of the 2019-2020 funding cycle is “Advancing Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging through Technology Driven Solutions.” The fund is soliciting ideas that leverage technology to “strengthen and advance” Harvard’s culture of belonging, according to the email.

“This Harvard Culture Lab is going to make us proactive,” Wilson said. “Most of the offices of this type are reactive, responding to crises and conflicts all over the campus.”

This past spring, the fund awarded its initial pilot grants — given in advance of the fund’s official release this Wednesday — to projects ranging from web-based platforms to assessment tools, awareness campaigns, and events.

For example, the “This is How You Say My Name” project — one of the spring 2019 pilot grant recipients — integrated name recording into my.harvard, providing faculty, teaching assistants, and advisors the opportunity to hear the correct pronunciation of students’ names prior to engaging with them.

“This project really captured just what’s possible when it comes to leveraging technology to promote belonging and inclusion,” Jainaba M. Seckan, project manager at the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, said.

Wilson said the fund was born out of the framework recommended by the Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging, which former University President Drew G. Faust convened in 2016.

Over the course of two years, the 55-member University-wide task force — comprising professors, staff, and alumni — evaluated Harvard’s efforts to create an inclusive environment and recommended improvements.

In March 2018, the task force released its final report. Its recommendations included enhancing mental health resources, improving faculty recruitment and retention strategies, and building two University-wide centers — one for “identity, politics, and culture” and one for “inclusion and belonging.”

Since the report, the task force has also conducted a pilot “Pulse Survey” — the largest survey ever conducted in the history of Harvard. Around 24,000 University affiliates participated in the “Pulse Survey,” according to Wilson.

Wilson said despite potential financial limitations, the fund’s ultimate goal is to promote innovation and better the campus culture.

“We're not going to be constrained by the funds,” he said. “The bottom line is the culture. We're looking to improve the Harvard University culture and make it reflect one of sustainable inclusive excellence.”

— Staff writer Amanda Y. Su can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @amandaysu.

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