The “Masters” of Harvard’s undergraduate residential houses are senior faculty members who serve as the chief administrative officers within the houses. They are responsible for shaping the cultural and intellectual life of these smaller student communities, and also play a role in giving each house a distinctive character.
Ivy League institutions adopted the term from British schools, notably Oxford and Cambridge, where “master” survives as a shorthand for “schoolmaster” or “headmaster.” But in the American context, the “Master” moniker, which is also used at Yale and — until very recently — Princeton, has been criticized for its associations with slavery. Students and faculty alike have pointed out the title’s unsettling historical connotations. Its elimination has figured among demands from student protesters at Harvard and Yale.
And now it’s becoming clear that the hoary title is on its way out.
Harvard College Dean Rakesh Khurana announced in an email to students Tuesday night that leaders of the university’s undergraduate residences have agreed to forgo the title of “Master.”
“I write on behalf of myself and my fellow residential House leaders to let you know that the House Masters have unanimously expressed desire to change their title,” the email said. “In the coming weeks, the College will launch a process in which members of the House leaders’ docket committee, working with senior College team members and the House leadership community as a whole, will suggest a new title that reflects the current realities of the role.”
The email further noted that the decision, which has been approved by Harvard University President Drew Faust, “has taken place over time and has been a thoughtful one, rooted in a broad effort to ensure that the College’s rhetoric, expectations, and practices around our historically unique roles reflects and serves the 21st century needs of residential student life.”
Khurana did not indicate when the new titles will take effect. As of early Wednesday, the administrators were still listed on Harvard’s website as “House Masters.”
In an interview last week with the Harvard Crimson, the school’s student-run newspaper, Khurana said he has “not felt comfortable personally with the title.”
“I know that language is powerful, and I think we have to be very conscious about how language is used,” Khurana said.
Officials at Princeton announced last month that masters of residential colleges would from that point forward be called the “head of college.”
“Though we are aware that the term ‘master’ has a long history of use in universities (indeed since medieval times), it seems to me by now to be anachronistic and unfortunate for the positions we hold,” said Sandra Bermann, a former “master,” now “head” of a Princeton residential college.
Princeton College Dean Jill Dolan said “‘head of college’ better captures the spirit of their work and their contributions to campus residential life.”
At Yale, where calls to remove the title have so far been unfruitful, the master of one residential college asked students to instead address him as “doctor” or “professor” in light of the “deeply problematic” racial and gender hierarchies tied to “master,” reported the Yale Daily News.
“I think there should be no context in our society or in our university in which an African American student, professor or staff member — or any person, for that matter — should be asked to call anyone ‘master,'” religious studies professor Stephen Davis wrote in an email.
“And there should be no context where male-gendered titles should be normalized as markers of authority,” he added.
The debate over the title “Master” comes alongside other efforts to purge higher education institutions of names that now carry controversial, racially-charged associations.
On the same day that Princeton announced the title’s elimination, students occupied the president’s office to demand, among other things, that the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy and International Affairs be renamed because what the Atlantic referred to as “the racist legacy of Woodrow Wilson.” The 28th president of the United States and 13th president of Princeton was a segregationist believed by some to have supported the ideas of the Ku Klux Klan.
Last month, Georgetown students successfully lobbied for name changes to two buildings honoring school presidents who organized the sale of Jesuit-owned slaves in order to relieve campus debt. Yale students have also called for the renaming of Calhoun College, an undergraduate residential college named for South Carolina’s champion of slavery, John C. Calhoun, a former member of the U.S. House and Senate and once vice-president of the United States.
Other examples of similar movements abound across the country, including pushes to refashion public schools named after Confederate leaders — all 188 of them.
At the same time, criticisms of these mostly student-led efforts have emerged with equal ferocity, as commentators accused protesters of rewriting history and infringing on free speech in an effort to create “safe spaces” on campuses.
Everett Piper, president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University, wrote in an open letter this Monday that his school would not be doing anything to stop students from feeling “uncomfortable.”
“Our culture has actually taught our kids to be this self-absorbed and narcissistic! Any time their feelings are hurt, they are the victims!” the letter said. “Anyone who dares challenge them and, thus, makes them ‘feel bad’ about themselves, is a ‘hater,’ a ‘bigot,’ an ‘oppressor,’ and a ‘victimizer.'”
Others have expressed concern that removing the names of controversial historical figures could amount to a counterproductive form of “erasure.”
“Memorialization, representing the past, needs to cause pain,” Yale historian David Blight told The Atlantic. Renaming Calhoun College could possibly “take away both history and a primary impetus for addressing a host of related issues, including the low percentage of minorities on Yale’s faculty.”
Administrators at schools taking a different tack from Oklahoma Wesleyan contend that systemic racism does exist in higher education and can be addressed through symbolic progress.
After portraits of African American law professors at Harvard Law School were defaced with black tape in what student activists called “hateful retaliation” against their protests, law school dean Martha Minow said racism is a “serious problem” at the institution.
In an email last Wednesday, according to the Harvard Crimson, Minow told Law School affiliates that a committee has been formed to decide whether the school should continue to use the crest of the former slave-holding Royall family as its official seal.
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