A long, loaded question

Alright, so while I hate the idiotic assumptions that people often associate with the simplistic construction I’m about to make, I’m going to do it anyway. Let’s say there is an “establishment” in the political community of Harvard. Obviously, that “establishment” has to start with the student government and the student newspaper. But it would seem logical to add to that list the Institute of Politics, the Harvard Democrats and the Harvard Republicans. One might disagree, but let’s simply say that those 5 organization represent what we’ll call that political “establishment” of Harvard. I use the term “establishment” not in the pejorative sense that an occasionally anti-establishment type like myself might, but simply to say that the role of those institutions is established and none of them are trying to “subvert the dominant paradigm” as one facebook group puts it. This, I contend, is the establishment.

So here’s the loaded question: why is it that the two top people at each of these five organizations, the leaders of the “establishment”, are all white and mostly male and (so far as I know) all straight?(more in expanded post)

Now, before you try to answer that question let me warn you of a few things: I am friends with the leaders of all five of those groups, and I followed (and even participated in some of) their elections. In all five cases, out of the people running for the offices I believe that they were each undoubtedly the most qualified candidates. But, of the ten Presidents and Vice Presidents (or comparable second in command at the Crimson, the Managing Editor), only two are woman and all are white and all are straight. So, rather than asking why it is that people elected these 10 in particular over others (I would argue it’s because they were the best suited people who ran for the job), it might be more interesting to ask: why were there not more women, more people who are not straight, and people of color in positions where they could have been qualified?

Now, I admit, I’m conflating a lot of different problems in very different groups. For instance, the opponents of those who were elected in the cases of both the GOP and the IOP were either both women or led by a woman (all four of whom who had significant institutional qualifications). The question of female representation seems in many ways to be a fundamentally different one than that of ethno-racial diversity. Heteronormativity (sorry, big word: it means structures or behaviors that assume heterosexuality) seems to be even more difficult to address in some senses. In addition, while both the President and Vice President of the UC are white men (in both the old and new form of the Glazer administration), the Council itself is actually a fairly representative body in terms of women and people of color (I don’t know about sexuality), largely because of proactive work done to encourage underrepresented groups to participate. Maybe in the case of the UC, then, if that representativeness continues future candidates will have the qualifications regardless of their gender, race, sexuality, etc. But, I see little evidence of that kind of effort or diversity in the ranks at any of the other four groups: the Dems, the GOP, the IOP or the Crimson.

Why is it that until the last year in the UC, and continually in each of these other four establishment groups, whites, straight people, and men continue to dominate at what is supposed to be such a liberal and tolerant institution?

Two more caveats before you start to answer this question or consider it. First, the biggest mistake I think people make in the process of answering these questions is playing the blame game. The language of blame seems inadequate in the sense that those who benefit now should be “blamed” for the problem. That does not, however, mean that they are not a part of it and have responsibilities to do something. Second caveat, I do not think that people should consider this problem and, if you agree with it simply say “ok, next time I’ll vote for a woman/a person of color/someone not straight etc.” Support of someone who wouldn’t otherwise be considered may occasionally be necessary to correct such problems (see: affirmative action), but it seems like a wholly inadequate response to what might be more complicated causes. Alright, that’s my long, loaded question.

Who’s got answers?


16 responses to “A long, loaded question

  1. Andrew,

    While I do very much appreciate where you are trying to take this discussion, I feel that I need to set the facts straight on one point you mention: the sexual representation of the UC. Sadly, the UC is not truly representative of the gender make-up of the student body.

    I will not play the blame game in this instance and wish only to give some statistics. The problem (if you agree that it is a problem) originates not with the voters but with all the students in their choice of whether or not to be a candidate. If you will forgive me, I am going to omit Dudley because the elections are uncontested.

    In September of 2004, of those who submitted their name as a candidate for UC rep in the 12 upperclass houses, 69% were male and 31% were female. This is clearly indicates that men are more likely than women to put themselves forward as candidates. Just for additional evidence, last year (September of 2003) the numbers were 75% men and 25% women.

    The (im)balance is perpetuated through the election process. Among the 36 members of the UC from the houses (who were elected in those elections – I know that the make-up is not the same now, 8 months later), 67% were men and 33% were women.

    Another interesting statistic would be the balance between men and women among delegation chairs. For those unfamiliar with the UC, the person who garners the most support (um, votes) in a district is the delegation chair. The imbalance is even more extreme among delegation chairs (including freshmen now): 81% male and 19% female. This is significant because, significantly, the delegation chair gets the first choice of which committee they will join. Because the Student Affairs Committee appears to many to be the sexy choice, many delegation chairs choose this committee, and thus the result is a HEAVILY male SAC. (In the fall, SAC was 82% male and only 18% female.) This does not necessarily make SAC a less effective or less admirable advocate for students, but there is a chance that its discussions lack in some areas.

    There are umpteen possible reasons why more men than women put themselves forward as candidates and I’m sure we could debate about it over many back-and-forths, but I think that we can all agree that the UC does not represent the close to 50-50 gender balance of Harvard College.


  2. lpse,

    thanks so much for the post. good that you’re keeping me straight on my numbers, I should have known that. The question remains for all of these trends: why?

  3. Great, really complex question that i am still contemplating how to address, but in the meantime, speaking of numbers, is there any kind of data re: extracurriculars with percentage breakdowns on participants’ race, gender, or (trickier) sexual identity/orientation? If there were, a related question to try to answer, before ‘why are non-white, non-male, non-hetero students abstaining from involvement in the establishment?’, might be, ‘what are non-white, non-male, non-hetero students doing with their time?’ Then we could look at how those activities differ from the Big Five. Some kind of survey-collected data (I know I just filled out the freshman survey) might shed light on this question. Anyone know if it’s available?

    If not, there’s always speculation based on personal experience and hearsay, which, as anyone who knows me will attest, I am more than happy to offer…(smile).

  4. In addition, the sample size may be too small and/or the five groups could be mistakenly chosen. Obviously, if we were to include a clearly significant campus group like BSA, the numbers would change.

    Is it possible that the non-male and/or non-white and/or non-heterosexual people are focusing their extra-curricular efforts in other areas? Of course! I think this is what Katie is getting at and I think it is highly possible. Just look at the plethora of groups on campus that are defined based on members’ ethincity, religion, region of origin, gender, sexual orientation, or any number of other characteristics.


  5. The point of picking the Big 5, as Katie has so aptly called them, is that they are all supposed to represent a broad swath of Harvard students not specific to ethno-racial block, gender, or sexual orientation/identity. This is not to downplay the relevance of groups like the BSA, AAA, BGLTSA or RUS (to name just a few). One could quite easily argue that they are as or more relevant/powerful/important than the Big 5. But they are all intensionally particularistic, and so I’m interested in addressing the question for those organizations that are large, powerful, and non-particularist.

  6. Actually, the IOP has diversity numbers about the level of the campus as a whole in many of its committees, and even the Student Advisory Committee is close to par with the campus as far as ethnicity, although it is slightly more white and slightly more male. The Harvard Political Union, also a part of the IOP, manages the feat of being more diverse in every measure than the campus as a whole, except that it slightly under-represents liberal white men and women. One of the problems that I see with the IOP in particular is that it has a reputation that doesn’t reflect the current realities. I’d be happy to sit down with you and break down the (really boring, painstakingly compiled) numbers that I put together as the head of the Diversity Initiative last semester, should you be interested. I even made charts…

    That said, this “reputation” problem is serious, because it discourages people seeking a diverse atmosphere from even stepping in the room and makes it all that much more important, and that much more difficult, for the IOP to continue its substantive outreach efforts.

  7. I don’t want this to become a personal discussion, but I’d be curious about the high school/family backgrounds of Kaden, Stefanik, Downer, Schmidt, Hanzich, Glazer, Capp, Schuker, Marks, etc.

    Let me preface this by saying that these are huge generalizations. I know there are exceptions to everything I suggest, and that none of these ideas are comprehensive answers.

    It doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest – in addition to Katie’s excellent point – that pre-Harvard background has a role in students taking on leadership roles. It is true that Harvard College is mostly white and mostly not from “low-income” families (according to national poverty level as well as the good ol’ Admissions Office). This is a fact that many people are actively working to change. Still, as it stands, more white (ok) male (I don’t know) students had planned, worked and expected to go to a school like Harvard or a comparable institution. I feel like in a lot of cases political ambition – that is, ambition for leadership roles and power – is much more prevalent among white students who more often than others find themselves on a “track” to Harvard. On the other hand, the College has to (chooses to?) actively recruit minority and low-income students (who often are the same). I would venture to say that these students, whose presence at Harvard is more, say, unlikely than others, tend to have ambitions that are more focused on enrichment and accomplishment than power and prestige. It relates to the reason why the BSA etc. have to push more minority students to just run for UC.

    Harvard being the competitive environment it is, those who enter college with better knowledge of its institutions (Big 5) and the expectation that they will take on a leadership position in one of these institutions seem more likely to rise to those positions. The question is, ‘does this idea correlate at all to race or economic or gender and sexuality differences?’ I think it does, though I have no idea to what extent.

  8. Your post has zero currency. Why?

    (1) The sample size is ridiculously small.
    (2) The groups are essentially arbitrarily chosen. (Why not RUS? BSA? BMF? Indy? AAA? etc.)
    (3) You’re limited to a single year.
    (4) You make no distinction between the different leadership structures of different organizations.
    (5) You don’t explore the membership constituencies more broadly.
    (6) You don’t explore other possible correlates.

    Maybe your empirical result would hold up under closely scrutiny, but maybe it won’t.

    This kind of anecdotal nonsense, however, is worthless, except as a spring board to real analysis. If you want to do the serious work of uncovering a non-trivial observation about reality, and then offering various possible explanations as to how it go that way, you do need to put in serious work, and not incidental observations.

  9. john jernigan

    Danny Yagan, Brooks Washington and others have done some work along these lines as part of the Campus Diversity Policy group at the IOP. They were attempting to do some data-driven analyses of extracurricular participation. While I certainly cannot speak with any kind of expertise about their results, I know that one of their preliminary findings was that many of the strongest leaders on campus lead cultural or ethnic groups instead of the “Big Five” that you mention.

    It’d be interesting to get one of them to post a breakdown of what else they’ve come up with.

  10. Just to clarify, I’m a whimsical poster, not a social scientist. But I getcha, anonymous.

  11. Thanks. :)

    Actually, I think such whimsical posting can be a really useful spring-board to real analysis, and maybe I didn’t make that clear enough before. Still, I do want to advance the point that it’s not a substitute for real analysis.

  12. I haven’t read all the responses. But I just wanted to point out that the UC disproportionally consists of straight people. That is interesting. The fact, however, that of ten of the top leaders none are BGLT is not as noteworthy. If BGLT people make up 10% of the population, which many people have agreed is an inflated number, than at most only one person should be BGLT of this group. To say there are 0 isn’t really a surprise in that context.

  13. There was at least one gay UC Rep. at one point this year.

  14. I think that the earlier commenter who pointed out that minorities who desire to get involved in politics might feel better specifically representing their communities rather than all of Harvard carries some weight, but here’s something else to consider; not everyone at Harvard (in fact, I would hedge, a minority of Harvard students) are interested in politics (esp campus politics) to begin with, and those who come here with interests in government heavily skew white and male. A quick scan of thefacebook.com confirms this — I did a quick sample of all people in the class of 2007 who are concentrating in government, and found that nearly 70% are men, and more than 80% of those men were white. It’s a rough estimate, but I feel like it works (I ignored social studies concentrators and ec concentrators, who I figured would be second-most likely each to be interested in politics, figuring that the more diverse social studies group would be counterbalanced by the less diverse economics group). Note that of the 8 people you listed above (I’m ignoring, for now, the Crimson, since I think it’s absurd to say it’s primarily a political institution), 7 are concentrating in government, ec, or social studies. The UC, broadly speaking, is also I’m sure heavily represented by gov, soc studies, and ec concentrators.

    If you view these “big four” as representatives not of the whole harvard community, but as of the Government-focused harvard students, then it is much more repesentative, and that’s where you have your problem stemming from.

    In other words, I think your problem, though not nonexistent, does not cut to the real issue. If you want to say this is a problem, you should say it’s probably two.
    1: That students who go to Harvard and end up concentrating in Gov, Ec, or Social Studies are overwhelmingly white and male.
    2: That non-Gov concentrators are generally less interested in getting involved in political issues than Gov concentrators.

    Point #1 surprised me a little bit, and point #2 makes sense — people who don’t have government as their primary interest probably don’t want to devote overwhelming amounts of time to a position that centers around it. If you increase the number of non-Gov concentrators interested in running for leadership positions in these organizations, and I would hypothesize that the diversity and representativeness of these organizations increase.

    Just some thoughts.

  15. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that your analysis works particularly well, because you overlook the fact that we have specific departments that would attract woman, non-hetero men and ethno-racial minorities: WGS, Af-Am, East Asian Studies, etc. etc.

    So I’m not sure that being a Gov concentrator really means you’re the only people interested in gov…

  16. It’s certainly not the case that only Gov concentrators are interested in government. What does seem to be the case is that somebody who is concentrating in, say, East Asian Studies, would be more interested in leading a group specifically focused on issues dealing with East Asians specifically rather than the Harvard Dems, for example. The very choice of East Asian studies as a concentration shows that they privelege East Asian issues over broader topics. My point still remains that it makes more sense to use the groups of Social Studies, Ec, and Gov, which seem to me to be the main three groups that (supposedly) deal with government as it applies to everybody, as the baseline for comparison as far as leaders of political groups goes, and not use the Harvard community as a whole. Students who have other interests may want to get involved, but it is sensible to assume that the leaders would come from the most directly applicable concentrations.

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