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Black students demand action on institutionalized whiteness at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design

Whiteness in the Ivory Tower

Black students demand action on institutionalized whiteness at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design

Harvard University’s Gund Hall, which houses the Graduate School of Design. (Daniel Hartwig/Wikimedia Commons)

As mass demonstrations against police brutality and systemic anti-Blackness continue across the United States, many architecture schools have come under intense scrutiny for their equivocal responses to the movement. Students and alumni at institutions long considered bastions of the white architectural tradition, including the Yale School of Architecture and Columbia GSAPP, sent letters criticizing their respective deans for failing to outline concrete measures aimed at upending racism in their curricula, recruitment efforts, and funding practices. At Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design (GSD), Dean Sarah Whiting’s letter “Minneapolis Affects Us All,” issued shortly after the murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department, raised similar concerns. In its original form, the letter lacked any reference to Floyd’s Blackness—an omission that the dean corrected after a student called it into question.

Last Wednesday, members of GSD’s African American Student Union (AASU) and AfricaGSD jointly organized and published “Notes on Credibility,” a set of 13 actionable demands submitted to the school’s administration. Student organizers framed the GSD’s inaction as evidence of its “eroding credibility as an institution that claims to ‘[educate] leaders in design, research, and scholarship to make a resilient, just, and beautiful world.’” The letter asserts that the GSD’s cursory efforts to diversify their course offerings, faculty demographics, and student recruitment in recent years are largely insufficient in breaking down impediments faced by Black students at the school: “These ‘actions’ are virtue signaling; they are damaging, evasive, defensive, and demonstrate your inability to understand that this institution is part of the problem.”

For members of the AASU, “Notes on Credibility” is part of a more longstanding effort to institutionalize anti-racism at the GSD. The student group’s biannual Black in Design (BiD) conference, founded in 2015, “recognizes the contributions of the African diaspora to the design fields and promotes discourse around the agency of the design profession to address and dismantle the institutional barriers faced by our communities.” Many past BiD speakers, including Rutgers University professor of Art History Amber Wiley and the GSD’s own professor in practice of Urban Planning Toni Griffin, have outlined clear measures for addressing and uprooting whiteness and white supremacy in design pedagogy.

Despite the work of such BIPOC educators and the widespread availability of related resources, the GSD, and particularly its Department of Architecture, has remained a stalwart purveyor of a Eurocentric (and predominantly white) design ethos. As the authors of “Notes on Credibility” make abundantly clear, such an approach has particularly deleterious effects for members of the BIPOC community: “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.”

As of this week, “Notes on Credibility” has received over 1,300 signatures, including many from outside the GSD community. The 13 demands outlined in the letter are as follows:

1. Restructure all courses at the GSD to include Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) voices

2. Hire more Black faculty, staff, and administration

3. Strategy for implementing anti-racist efforts from department chairs

4. Advancement and acknowledgement of faculty promoting justice in the profession

5. Inclusion of BIPOC guest speakers in GSD courses

6. Response to racist remarks issued by the Architecture Department Chair

7. Transparency of selection criteria for awards and honors

8. Access to tools and resources that support academic and professional growth

9. Outreach and engagement with Black communities

10. Financial accountability, transparency, and most importantly support

11. Frameworks and training to understand the specific racial context of America

12. Proactively cultivate a strong network of Black professionals, alumni and students

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

Responses from the GSD’s administration have taken multiple forms, all of which have been direct and open-ended. On Friday, Mark Lee, chair of the Department of Architecture, published a statement expressing regret for a 2018 interview in which he lauded the school’s Eurocentrism as one of its strengths: “Black architects, theorists, and thinkers have framed, built, moved, and shaped the field in fundamental, profound ways, and we have failed to recognize that work and those contributions.” Without delving into more granular details, Lee assured students and alumni that the department would engage in “efforts to develop and implement an anti-racist strategy” for changing the structure of its courses and the composition of its faculty, staff, and administration.

Later that day, senior faculty members in the Department of Architecture signed onto a letter sent directly to the AASU and AfricaGSD, in which they asked to work collaboratively with the student groups on “a concrete and specific plan of action that will achieve substantial effect in the fall semester and continue to develop beyond.” The letter was signed by K. Michael Hays, Toshiko Mori, Antoine Picon, and nine other professors.

The first school-wide response to “Notes on Credibility” came on Sunday afternoon. In “Toward a New GSD,” a letter sent to the entire student body, Dean Whiting apologized for the school’s history of contributing to structural anti-Blackness, both within its ranks and through the design work it promotes worldwide. In laying out plans to “make progress, not just with words, but with actions,” Whiting committed to certain immediate steps and long-term goals, noting that they constitute “the beginning of a response, a response that we must all usher forward in unison.” She outlined five measures in her message, as follows:

Establish for all departments and programs across the school a shared agenda, to be reviewed annually, for instilling anti-racist practices in their hiring, their visitors, their communication, and their curricula, and create a permanent page on the school’s website that includes our shared values as well as resources that advocate for racial understanding.

Create specific programming for new student orientation and training for new faculty and staff to educate all members of our community on the specific racial context of the United States, as well as of the immediate Boston area, and how to better engage in race-related discussions and actions inside and outside the classroom. These topics will also be included within the introductory core curriculum of every program.

Establish a GSD Gift Fund in support of anti-racism. This fund, already in the process of being created, addresses a number of demands shared in the statement from the African American Student Union (AASU) and AfricaGSD to the GSD’s administration. The school is committed to supporting initiatives aimed at combating racism, and plans to initiate this fund immediately, as a part of many actions that we will take to acknowledge that design pedagogy has a cultural obligation to address injustice and discrimination. It is our hope to engage our alumni and friends with a strong call to action that addresses the immediate needs of the GSD’s Black community, and leverages this moment in time to create systemic change.

Identify and commit to new ways of recruiting and retaining students of color writ large, with specific efforts to recruit and retain Black students, faculty, and staff, including but not limited to expanding our numbers of Black speakers and visitors to our classes; establishing close relationships to the HBCUs; strengthening our outreach to Black communities in the Boston area; expanding Design Discovery and Design Discovery Young Adult; expanding our Community Service Fellowships; and proactively cultivating a strong network of Black professionals, alumni, and students.

Expand faculty bias training beyond search committees to include bias issues related to grading and awards. We will also introduce a graduation prize for a student who has engaged with issues of equity in a sustained way throughout their years at the GSD, and an annual prize for a faculty member who has engaged in such issues and through their work have made a demonstrable impact.

Review these measures annually to ensure that we are indeed remaking the school into what we want it to be.

Toward a New GSD” directly addresses several of the issues detailed in “Notes on Credibility,” but the problem of pervasive whiteness in the discipline of architecture extends far beyond the walls of Harvard’s Gund Hall. According to data released by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB), which oversees the licensure process for all professional architects in the United Sates, 52 percent of those starting the process toward licensure in 2018 were white. However, there was a significant drop-off in the number of non-white candidates who completed all licensure requirements—86 percent of new NCARB certificate holders and 90 percent of total NCARB certificate holders in the same year were white. In each category, only 2 percent were African-American. At many top firms and institutions, leadership positions are almost exclusively occupied by white practitioners—including at NCARB itself, where the Board of Directors is 93 percent white.

Many have identified these discrepancies as evidence of the obstacles that make it particularly difficult for Black and other minority architects to enter and thrive within the profession. As the NCARB data also noted, non-white licensure candidates were 25 percent more likely to stop pursuing licensure than white candidates in 2018. Some, including Mónica Ponce de León, a GSD alumna and current dean of the Princeton School of Architecture, have called on NCARB to reevaluate their restrictive licensing requirements. Others have urged firms to hire and, perhaps even more critically, support and promote BIPOC designers. The GSD’s reputation as one of the nation’s top architecture schools provides it with a potentially powerful platform for promoting such seismic shifts in the field. The administration’s developing response to “Notes on Credibility” will demonstrate whether it considers such work pressing and worthwhile.

BIPOC students and educators alike have long underscored the need for transformative changes in the way architecture is taught in the U.S., but the magnitude of the moment has added to their urgency. Members of the AASU and AfricaGSD stress that the actions demanded in “Notes on Credibility” are only the first steps in enacting profound, lasting change at the GSD. For BIPOC students who have fought for more justice and equity in design education for decades, they are also long overdue.