How to Improve 'Privilege Training' at Harvard

Early thoughts on the new orientation requirement for first-year graduate students at the John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Harvard's graduate school of public policy and leadership now includes a new requirement. "In response to growing demand from student activists," Kat Stoeffel writes in New York magazine, "administrators committed to adding a session in power and privilege to its orientation program for incoming first-year students."*

The purpose of the session?

"The substance of the training, while still under discussion, is to prepare students to understand the broad impact of identity on their decision-making and to engage them in constructive tools for dialogue," says campus activist Reetu Mody.

Those sound like valuable skills. And who can dispute that both better understanding identity and engaging in constructive dialogue are useful tools for future leaders? What I can't help but sense, as I ponder the case offered by proponents of this requirement, is their confidence that they already know the broad impact of identity on decision-making. They speak as if their charge is to teach their correct understanding to less enlightened classmates. They may, in fact, be at the head of their class on these subjects. But I'd posit that the broad impact identity has on decision-making is neither a settled question nor constant across individuals.

The orientation materials they adopt will presumably be more rigorous than off-the-cuff comments to reporters, so I'll be interested to see if the finished product is appropriately modest in its assertions, and whether it is epistemically open or closed.

The Harvard Crimson reports on informal 'privilege training' already conducted by activists at the school. "At Friday’s event, about 80 students participated in an exercise to visualize the differences in privilege created by race and gender," says Tyler S. Olkowski. "The students began in a single line, but as students were asked to step forward or backward based on questions about the social repercussions of their socioeconomic, racial, ethnic, and sexual identities, the line became disjointed." The more privileged wound up a number of steps ahead of the less privileged.

Such exercises are not without insight or merit (though I find it hard to believe that first-year graduate students at Harvard haven't encountered this sort of thing before). It surprises me not at all that Harvard insiders would craft the exercise to highlight where they ostensibly stand relative to their fellow Harvard classmates.

As a Harvard outsider who will one day live under a governing elite populated by today's KSG first-years, I'd only ask for one addition to the "step forward, step back" exercise. Prior to the day it is conducted, KSG should take out some ads in local media: $50 dollars available for the first 500 non-Harvard students to show up at the campus football field at an appointed time. Let them gather, black, white and brown; men and women; straight and gay. The hoi poloi and the KSG freshmen should all mass together behind one end zone. Then the stadium announcer should say, "If you're not a Harvard student, stay where you are. And if you are a Harvard student, take 95 steps forward, until you're at the 5 yard line by the far end zone."

Once all the KSG freshmen are lined up straight at that 5 yard line, everyone can do the "step-forward, step-back" exercise as before. I submit that my augmented approach will afford a more accurate understanding of privilege as it operates at Harvard.

*Update: A Harvard spokesperson has written to clarify exactly what the school has told activists:

We have certainly engaged in discussions with the Speak Out group on this issue and have told them categorically that the school has no intention of offering a session on “power and privilege.”  We have conveyed that we are committed to revamping our current session on diversity offered at orientation to something that will help students better understand the broad impact of identity on their decision making as future policy makers and equip them with the tools necessary to engage in constructive dialogue. Learning to have constructive conversations in the context of differences in race, gender, cultural background, political viewpoints and many other perspectives is important in any graduate school, particularly one dedicated to preparing its students to be effective leaders and policymakers. 

So judge for yourself whether the New York magazine characterization that I quoted is accurate.