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This summer will have more than poolside popsicles and a reprieve from eternal midterm season to look forward to. On June 1, Ruth J. Simmons will officially join Harvard as senior adviser to the University president on engagement with historically Black colleges and universities.
Although it’s still too early to judge the impact of this appointment, we celebrate the administration for beginning to execute the third recommendation of the Legacy of Slavery report, which calls for the development of lasting relationships with HBCU partners.
We have previously wished for greater concrete action to complement the thorough theoretical grounding of the Legacy of Slavery report. Simmons’s appointment transforms a vacant gesture into concrete partnership — exactly the kind of act we want from Harvard’s reckoning with its legacy of slavery.
Simmons’s position may be nebulous, limited to a part-time, advisory role. But Simmons’s exemplary accomplishments are crystal-clear and groundbreaking. She has served as president of three distinguished and distinct academic institutions: Smith College, Brown University, and most recently, Prairie View A&M University. She was also the first Black president of an Ivy League. At Brown, she pioneered one of the first initiatives in higher education to publicly acknowledge and investigate institutions’ historical connections to slavery.
Driving valuable change is clearly a staple of Simmons’s prolific career. We hope Harvard will empower her to continue doing what she does best.
The work that Simmons will commence at Harvard gleams with opportunities to cultivate novel partnerships beyond the wrought iron gates of the Ivy League and the high-tech labs of MIT, advancing equity across higher education. A school like Harvard, with its small, disproportionately wealthy student body, is in the bottom bracket of American colleges when it comes to building social mobility. An extra dollar spent on Harvard is better spent flowing resources to HBCUs and community colleges that lack our dedicated base of moneyed donors.
To be clear, we should not view partnerships with HBCUs as mere tokens of charity tossed out from Harvard’s deep coffers. We at Harvard have much to gain in our relationship with HBCUs: from their leading scholarship in disciplines intersecting with racial equity to their service of Generational African American students.
Of course, the academic contributions of HBCUs are not reserved to race-related matters. We note these particular examples because they so starkly contrast Harvard’s repeated failures. From lackluster faculty diversity and faltering half-attempts to develop an ethnic studies curriculum, to pervasive feelings of disparity among Generational African American students, Harvard not only can, but must, learn from HBCUs.
When Simmons delivered our Commencement address in 2021, we wrote that Harvard “invites a brilliant, forward-thinking speaker, yet does not follow her example in its own backyard.” Now, Harvard has welcomed that same brilliant, forward-thinking speaker to its front door. We can’t wait to open the door and follow in her example.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.
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