For decades, activists at Ivy League schools have pushed for the establishment of multicultural centers — physical spaces on campus to foster inclusion for diverse groups of students.
Many of Harvard’s peer schools — including Princeton, Columbia, and Yale — ultimately established these spaces, either for individual groups or diverse identities as a whole.
Still, since the 1960s, Harvard administrators have rejected undergraduate proposals for a multicultural center. In the years following the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, some believe students have stopped asking for a multicultural center, even as activism supporting an ethnic studies department and race-conscious admissions has persisted.
Three years after the pandemic began, activists are beginning to revive efforts for cultural centers or a multicultural space, though many have different views on what these spaces would look like.
Though Harvard has a prayer space and a center for race relations housed in the basements of freshman dorms, affinity group leaders said these areas fall short of a multicultural space.
Tung T. Nguyen ’86 — a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, who has worked in diversity, equity, inclusion, and anti-racism — said he first witnessed the push for a multicultural center while he was a student on campus.
“For us, a lot of us, we feel that it’s not just about a multicultural center,” Nguyen said. “It’s about a mindset at Harvard that says it values diversity and brings in diverse people. But when the diverse people get there, Harvard does not welcome them.”
College spokesperson Jonathan Palumbo declined to comment on criticisms of institutional support for diverse students.
In early 2018, it seemed like the movement for a multicultural center was picking up steam. Student government representatives voiced their support for the space and created a Multicultural Center Coalition. A year later, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana said Harvard would continue research on a potential multicultural center.
But some students said the movement came to a halt during the pandemic, as students were forced to go home and reimagine their relationship with a physical campus while taking classes on Zoom.
Former Harvard South Asian Association Co-President Shruthi S. Kumar ’24 said she noted a decrease in advocacy efforts for a multicultural center since the onset of the pandemic.
“I don’t think there has been any progressive movement since the pandemic, or any large action taken since then,” Kumar said.
Harvard Dharma Co-President Navin S. Durbhakula ’25 said even pre-pandemic, his group faced difficulties in taking advocacy efforts beyond intergroup conversations because “nobody really knew where to go from here.”
“I think that that had always sort of presented a difficulty, and then obviously during Covid when there was no chance of building anything on campus — I think that definitely probably stifled progress a bit coming back,” he said.
Shraddha Joshi ’24, a member of Harvard Ghungroo and the Palestine Solidarity Committee, said she believes the pandemic may have severed advocates’ connections to physical spaces when they were sent home.
“Having such different relationships with physical spaces post-pandemic might have affected the way people sort of conceptualize the value of a dedicated center,” Joshi said.
Some student leaders cited changing priorities in recent years as a reason behind the shift away from advocacy for a multicultural center.
Chelsea Wang ’25, co-president of the Harvard-Radcliffe Asian American Association, said pushing for a multicultural center has “been on the back burner” because the organization has been focused on fighting for affirmative action as Harvard faces a ruling on a lawsuit threatening its race-conscious admissions practices.
Former Harvard Islamic Society Co-President Reem K. Ali ’23 said her group’s advocacy efforts “turned to more immediate asks” post-Covid-19, such as implementing Halal options in Harvard dining halls.
“Advocacy for a multicultural center is something that does need to be restarted because it’s something that’s very, very desperately needed by the various affinity groups here, who often feel like they have no space, they have no home,” Ali said.
Tarina K. Ahuja ’24 — who formerly served as director of inclusion and belonging of the Undergraduate Council, Harvard’s recently dissolved student government — said despite stumbles due to the pandemic, she believes “energy and momentum is building up again to try to continue advocacy efforts.”
Abigail Romero ’23, chair of the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations Student Advisory Committee, said she spoke with senior members of the Foundation about reviving the push for a multicultural center.
“We talked about perhaps revitalizing this conversation, or what it would look like to advocate for a multicultural center, given that the Harvard Foundation kind of serves a purpose of bringing together different organizations on campus already,” said Romero, a Crimson News editor.
Over the years, the conversation about what cultural spaces on Harvard’s campus should look like has evolved.
Mataya R. Philbrick ’24 said she believes student demands have “really shifted” from one large multicultural center to many smaller cultural centers. Philbrick is working with the Harvard Black Alumni Society and Harvard Black Community Leaders to push for a Black cultural center on campus.
The idea started last summer when Philbrick spoke with a friend at Yale, who was “shocked” to learn that Harvard does not have a multicultural space or cultural houses for diverse groups.
“When you create a space that is multicultural, oftentimes it can exclude based on other societal factors like economic or colorism,” Philbrick said. “Thinking about the Black community, I felt that a space that would be safe for us would be a space where we’re able to come together as a community.”
“I think that solidarity amongst people of color is incredibly important and valuable,” she added. “But I think that solidarity can occur more across us all having our own spaces and own time to celebrate our unique cultural differences rather than one space that kind of flattens us.”
Kashish Bastola ’26, the Education and Political Chair of AAA, also said he was concerned about one large multicultural center, citing the potential for minority groups to be excluded or overlooked.
Bastola said AAA sees forming cultural spaces for students with marginalized backgrounds to “come together and feel that their identities are being affirmed” as “a huge priority.”
“We really hope that the College will listen to students and to student organizations as we organize around these cultural centers that we have seen be successful on other campuses,” Bastola said.
Brian M. Magdaleno ’23, president of Mariachi Veritas, said while performing with his group he noticed several Boston-area schools had both multicultural centers and specialized cultural spaces.
“I think it would be beneficial to also have smaller centers,” Magdaleno said. “Maybe having smaller cultural centers will allow more personalized support or resources to that specific group.”
But other student leaders and affiliates are pushing for one large multicultural space over individual centers.
Wang said because students “don’t have anything to begin with, it’s much easier to start with one center” than to ask for many.
“We can have both — I think we can have a multicultural center and within it have different spaces dedicated to different groups,” Wang said. “But I think there is value in having a space where everyone can come together and collaborate on projects that affect all of us because at the end of the day, while we have many very different experiences, often there are the same issues facing all of us.”
Professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Religion and Cultures Ali S.A. Asani ’77 said the administration has cited the lack of space on campus in rejecting requests for a multicultural center, a factor that may impede the establishment of several cultural spaces.
As conversations surrounding multicultural center advocacy continue, some groups said specific needs to be addressed in the potential space.
Prayer spaces for some campus religious groups — including the Harvard Islamic Society and Harvard Dharma — are currently housed in the basement of Canaday Hall.
Durbhakula, co-president of Harvard Dharma, said the organization has pushed for a larger, above-ground prayer space that can accommodate more students and provide greater flexibility in holding events.
“It was really difficult for us logistically to have our prayer space in the basement,” he said.
Ahuja said the Harvard Sikh Student Association does not currently have a prayer space, underscoring the importance of pushing for a multicultural center as a physical space.
Physical space limitations have “hindered the growth” of the South Asian Association, Kumar said, adding that a space would allow the group to host speakers, board meetings, fashion shows, and other events.
Bastola said he would like to see a multicultural center with features including a kitchen, lounge spaces, conference rooms, and artwork to showcase different cultures.
“A lot of it boils down to it being kind of like a home, honestly,” he said. “I think these cultural centers can be microcosms of that for our campus community, but also places where we can invite people who are non-Asian to come and see what our culture is.”
In 2019, the College convened a Working Group on Symbols and Spaces of Engagement to “examine and evaluate how the variety of spaces and symbols impact the experiences of different students on campus,” according to its mission.
The working group, chaired by Asani, recommended “rethinking the Harvard Foundation” to become a space of “engaging students of all ethnicities and backgrounds.”
The Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations, founded in 1981, hosts cultural events and has a space in the lower level of the freshman dormitory Grays Hall that includes a kitchen, conference room, and serenity room for prayer or meditation.
“It’s been in existence for 40 years. When it was created, Harvard was a very different place,” Asani said. “You rebrand its mission, and it will then address some of the needs that the students who are calling for a multicultural center — they have certain needs that they want — then this can address those needs.”
Kyla N. Golding ’24, an intern at the Harvard Foundation, said the Foundation tries to be “an open and inclusive space” for cultural groups to find support and resources.
“Although we are not in name a multicultural center, in the absence of one, we’ve kind of operated as one,” said Golding, a Crimson Editorial editor.
Sadé Abraham, senior director of the Harvard Foundation, wrote in a statement that the center is engaged in conversations “deeply rooted in our lived experiences, which are essential to driving progress.”
“We intentionally establish safe spaces for historically marginalized individuals,” Abraham wrote. “The Harvard Foundation is committed to continuing our legacy, history, and practice of actualizing inclusive excellence and embodying our highest hopes and aspirations through our efforts.”
A multicultural center would be able to provide more “individual and personalized” resources for students than the Harvard Foundation currently can, Golding said.
She added that she is uncertain about the future of the multicultural center, given Harvard’s upcoming presidential transition, which will see Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay assume Harvard’s top post.
“Because she’s Black and a woman, people are going to expect her to do more or care more. I definitely think that she still has a lot of pressure from above her and below her, and so I don’t know how much this is going to change in the next couple years,” Golding added. “But I am hopeful.”
AAA Co-President Kylan M. Tatum ’25 said he would like to see more collaboration across student organizations in pushing for a multicultural space.
He cited plans to leverage alumni networks and form a student-based coalition that can “move a little quicker than organizations that have to go through more formal bureaucratic processes.”
Tatum said the push for a multicultural center is connected to advocacy around affirmative action. Legal scholars say the Supreme Court’s conservative majority is likely to strike down race-conscious admissions this summer in the lawsuit brought against Harvard by the anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions.
“Given a potential ruling in favor of SFFA and the possibility of a decreased number of minority students on campus, I think both having a multicultural center and pushing for an ethnic studies department, among other solutions, could help to attract and retain more students of color at Harvard,” Tatum said.
“Especially following this June when the decision drops, a lot of our efforts will be focused towards trying to advocate for a multicultural center,” he added.
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