Notes on Credibility - Harvard GSD


An interesting afternoon read sent out today. I hope other schools follow in this lead.


Notes on Credibility

A statement from the African American Student Union (AASU) and AfricaGSD to the administration of the Harvard Graduate School of Design:

This statement is not about us, it is about you and your credibility as an institution. As Black members of this community, we have maintained silence this past week – both as an act of self-care and because we feel there is no need to publicly share our grief, trauma, or exhaustion. We do not owe you our experiences, ideas on how to organize, or a listening session on how it feels to be at an institution that does not proactively address systems of injustice in its curriculum, classrooms, or social experiences.

The Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) cannot claim academic excellence while maintaining silence. Your silence is complicit in anti-Blackness. The Black in Design conference, a student-initiated and led effort, has been appropriated for recruitment, misrepresenting and obscuring larger institutional inequities that continuously go unaddressed at the GSD. Tokenizing Black faculty and students and our work as proof of anti-racist efforts is the institutional equivalent of stating, “I’m not racist, I have Black friends.” Bombarding us with emails on the responses and efforts of other schools and organizations, rather than providing your own, is not only performative but also harmful. These “actions” are virtue signaling; they are damaging, evasive, defensive, and demonstrate your inability to understand that this institution is part of the problem.

To begin, we ask that the Harvard Graduate School of Design acknowledges its inherent non-neutrality. Beyond issuing statements, the political choices of the GSD are evident in the cities and cultures taught in class, the approved thesis projects, the research and fellowships funded, and the demographics of the critics invited to Gund Hall.

We demand the Harvard Graduate School of Design actively institutionalize anti-racism and acknowledge that pedagogy has a cultural obligation, beginning with the following:

1. Restructure all courses at the GSD to include Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) voices. This includes syllabi, guest lectures, guest critics, coursework, etc. At a minimum, an introduction of at least 50% BIPOC authors in the reading lists for every course at the GSD. Professors should be well prepared to teach these works and answer all questions with no exceptions. To assist, we have provided this manifesto by Harvard Kennedy School professor, Dr. Zoe Marks. [resource]

2. Hire more Black faculty, staff, and administration. This also includes a review of existing faculty and their research interests and geographies. Where there are inadequacies in current faculty, the school is to hire BIPOC scholars and experts in these topics and geographies. Africa and the Caribbean are a good place to start. Where there are inadequacies in staff or administration, the school is to hire BIPOC that will advocate for students of color.

3. Strategy for implementing anti-racist efforts from department chairs. A commitment statement from all department chairs outlining their strategy for becoming actively anti-racist, as well as their performance and success metrics so that they can become accountable to the student body. At a minimum, this includes documentation that outlines changes to curricula in the history and theory sequences for core coursework.

4. Advancement and acknowledgement of faculty promoting justice in the profession for BIPOC designers and marginalized communities. The institution should highlight and proactively support faculty and staff that are working to realize these efforts.

5. Inclusion of BIPOC guest speakers in GSD courses.The inclusion of at least 50% BIPOC speakers in classes where guest lecturers are invited. This is not in reference to optional evening lectures or public programming, but for in-class lectures. To assist, we have linked to People of Craft, an online directory that highlights the work, and provides the contact information for such persons. [resource] Another resource is the crowdsourced BIPOC Studios List. [resource]

6. Response to racist remarks issued by the Architecture Department Chair. A response from Mark Lee regarding his statement made on the GSD development website: “I see the GSD as the most Eurocentric school in America, and that is really our strength. This is something that needs to be preserved and expanded, but at the same time, we should consider the other bridges that we need to build in different cultures, especially into Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.” [link] These statements are emblematic of deeper issues within the school’s culture.

7. Transparency of selection criteria for awards and honors bestowed throughout the program and upon graduation. There are discrepancies in grading systems and awards both across and within departments. Faculty and student makeup, as well as cultural bias, lead to projects that privilege Eurocentric ideals. (See Point 6)

8. Access to tools and resources that support academic and professional growth through sponsorship of at least five Black students to attend one conference per annum (such as AfroTech, NOMA, and other Black-led conferences). Faculty should also take advantage of these opportunities, because they currently do not exist within the GSD.

9.Outreach and engagement with Black communities including the greater Boston area, HBCUs, the Caribbean, and the African continent for recruitment and participatory justice initiatives. The school’s reliance on alumni efforts to recruit is neither fair nor effective, given that its acceptance and yield rates from these communities are low.

10. Financial accountability, transparency, and most importantly support for all students in regards to costs of printing, model materials, software, and hardware required to be competitive and successful in studio and other making courses. As an effort to remove barriers to the profession that disproportionately affect Black people, this is a move towards equity that everyone at our school deserves.

11. Frameworks and training to understand the specific racial context of America for domestic and international students. It is important to be familiar with the history and dynamics of race relations in the country both before matriculation and during enrollment, so that the Black students are not responsible for this labor.

12. Proactively cultivate a strong network of Black professionals, alumni and students. This includes access to Black alumni through a list of updated contact information, including their willingness to mentor and whether or not they are hiring.

13. Authorization for AASU & AfricaGSD to donate the remainder of unused allocated funds for the emergency spring semester to select Black organizations outside of the GSD. We also call on other student groups who have remaining funds from Spring 2020 to join in if able. This should not affect the amount of money allocated to the respective student groups in Fall 2020.

The thirteen demands listed above are for your immediate attention and action. Refusing to respond to these demands implies that the Harvard Graduate School of Design is both complicit in anti-Blackness and resistant to taking action. We will no longer accept excuses. A failure to meet these demands will include, but is not limited to, student demonstration and protest, loss of alumni funding, and disaffiliation of the Black in Design conference from the GSD.

To reiterate, our silence this past week was self-preservation. Your silence is a manifestation of your eroding credibility as an institution that claims to “[educate] leaders in design, research, and scholarship to make a resilient, just, and beautiful world.” As it stands, Harvard Graduate School of Design does not value design excellence or Black life.

For inquiries, please contact us at: [email protected]

Jun 10, 20 7:24 pm

Interesting. There are going to be a lot of similar statements made in the  future.

Jun 10, 20 10:10 pm  · 
2  · 
In the U.K. it is unusual for architecture students to be offered scholarships. @UCL the Bartlett announce 10 full study scholarships + £15k per year expenses for duration of studies for underrepresented undergrad students entering fall 2020. Lead by example!! where are the other uk unis?
Jun 11, 20 5:15 am  · 

Interesting and I agree with all points. Amazing how these 13 steps would benefit all students and faculty and engender a more robust environment at GSD (and all schools). Also amazing that institutions have valued status quo so much more than innovative thinking. How I wish my school gave a damn about non-European theory/design.

That said, I'm not sure how I feel about saying "My X means Y, but YOUR X means Z." I know the note is directed to GSD leadership, but read as an open letter, it's a bit presumptive. Assuming absolutes doesn't ever go well. Perhaps, qualifying the sentence with "To us" would be better.

Jun 11, 20 10:39 am  · 
3  · 

I would have loved a more diverse reading selection in school. 

Could be hard to get that high of a percentage of speakers and readings given the status of the profession here, but the GSD has the reach and could easily do it if they wanted. A lot of my favorite speakers in school were BIPOC, though to be fair they were optional lectures, so that's not the point being made. 

Jun 11, 20 3:35 pm  · 

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