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A Critical Conversation

Newly developed case studies and a film discussion guide will help Harvard and other institutions to confront the legacy of slavery in their own communities.
Harvard Yard

Photo: David Elmes

The release of the Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery report brings with it a series of critical questions about how slavery’s impact continues to ripple through education today. To help the Harvard community read, reflect, and grapple with the findings, Professor Meira Levinson, who served on the report’s committee, and Ph.D. students Orelia Jonathan and Caroline Tucker have worked collaboratively to develop a discussion guide for the documentary film that accompanied the report. They also co-authored several case studies to facilitate community conversations. Much of their work would be relevant at any institution seeking to confront the legacy of slavery in their own communities.

Here, Levinson and Tucker elaborate on the process of creating materials to guide meaningful and inclusive discussions around ethical decision making and the importance of continuing to have conversations about the legacy of slavery in educational institutions.

In thinking about having difficult conversations, what kind of resources did you think would be most useful?
Caroline Tucker: We interviewed over 60 students and administrators from across the university about how existing programming addresses Harvard’s history, where the gaps are, and where they saw openings for conversations on the university’s legacy of slavery. Based on our interviews, it was clear that there was a range of opinions about how central the conversation should be, but case studies came up over and over as a suggested resource because of how useful they had been in other contexts for administrators.  

Meira Levinson: We talked about how to provide resources that will help people have productive, hard conversations in diverse settings in ways that would foster inclusion and belonging. Both the film and the case studies are designed to support these kinds of conversations, although they also both also require careful preparation. That’s why we include a section in each facilitation guide on setting norms, and also why we include prompts to help people think about their own identities may play into their responses to hard histories and to the decisions we make in light of these histories. 

Let’s talk about the film, which is really powerful. How did you hope to extend conversations around it?
ML: [300th Anniversary University Professor and HGSE alum] Martha Minow and I were involved in conceiving of the film from the start, and we knew we wanted it to be a hard but necessary, visually powerful film that forced us to engage in a different way than a 130-page report might with the tough financial aspects of Harvard’s entanglement with enslaved labor, the intellectual and teaching and scholarly aspects, and the embodied physical aspects of enslavement. Everything in the film is supported by the extensive scholarship in the report, but if anything it is even more visceral and more conducive to immediate engagement. I really appreciate how the film highlights traditions both of complicity and of resistance at Harvard, and invites each of us to reflect on what roles we will take moving forward. It’s important for people to be able to talk about those questions together.

CT: The facilitation guide is a tool for groups, or discussion facilitators, who may or may not have experience leading difficult conversations. It can be particularly challenging to lead these discussions when the participants don't know each other, which we anticipated would likely be the case for many groups viewing the film together. So the guide aims to help create an inclusive space for everyone to engage with the film and each other.

What about processing the impact of the information in the report and what it means for the Harvard community as a whole? How do case studies fit in to that process?
ML: Normative case studies are engaging and realistic accounts, sometimes fictional and sometimes nonfiction, of commonplace but hard ethical dilemmas faced by policymakers or practitioners. They are short —  five or six pages, able to be read in 10–12 minutes by native speakers — and centered on hard questions with no clear right answer. We write normative case studies to highlight complexity and disagreement in a compelling and constructive format. By writing them this way, we enable diverse groups to come together in inclusive and equitable ways, share multiple perspectives about these dilemmas, and come to appreciate the different values, or different interpretations of values, that people operate with. They also hopefully advance a shared understanding of what it means to do ethical work in educational institutions at large. 

CT: These case studies create opportunities for open discussions on difficult topics. They provide students with historical information about the university, and they serve as a launching point to get everyone involved, regardless of their background or background knowledge. Our goal in creating these cases is to provide ways for Harvard community members to grapple with questions about what the university’s responsibilities are, given its history and what responsibilities we have as its affiliates.

Why are the considerations that the case studies raise important for not just Harvard students, but everyone, to discuss?
ML: The considerations raised and grappled within our case study are ones that are not Harvard-specific. They prompt questions such as: If students come to an institution to learn knowledge and skills and be professionals out in the world, why and how much should they care about that institution’s past misdeeds? For example, why should students be obliged to pay tuition and then to take on the university’s history as their own responsibility? But on the other hand, what would it mean to be part of an institution–and to benefit from its resources, its prestige, and its power–and not grapple with the institution’s history? Similarly, what responsibilities do faculty have to confront their university’s traditions of scholarship and teaching–including those traditions that exploited or reinforced slavery and colonialism–when designing their own classes and scholarly agendas? And finally, how might our individual racial, ethnic, or national identities be important or relevant in shaping our responses? 

CT: I’d also add that shedding light on these histories is crucial. Harvard is one of the oldest and most influential institutions in the United States, and it’s important that it be accountable for the role it played in perpetuating slavery, racism, and inequality. However, Harvard is not the only institution of its kind. Cataloging these histories is an important contribution to the ongoing conversation about the legacy of slavery in America.

And it seems like there are still more questions people will need to work through. What’s next?
ML: Students in our class are helping to develop a suite of cases, some focused on Harvard and others looking more broadly. These include cases about: university land use, housing insecurity, and gentrification; the history of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and what is owed by whom to HBCUs to help support and strengthen them in the 21st century; names, monuments, and memorials on Harvard’s campus and elsewhere; the challenges of curriculum reform and inclusive syllabus design; and land grant colleges and universities’ responsibilities to Indigenous groups in light of Congressional land grabs and removal. Each of these cases illuminates ethical challenges faced by many educational institutions — not only in higher education, but also in some cases by K–12 schools, too.