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Harvard stumbles over ‘social justice’ placemats

The placemat offered prescriptions to students on how to answer questions during the holiday break.

Harvard College officials this week apologized for dishing out placemats to students that suggested ways to talk with family at holiday gatherings about race relations, Islamophobia, student activism, and the outgoing title of “house master” that has long been used at the school.

The laminated placards, called the “Holiday Placemat for Social Justice: A placemat guide for holiday discussions on race and justice with loved ones,” irked some students on campus, who said it was too dogmatic.

“We reject the premise that there is a ‘right’ way to answer the questions posed. We do not think the officials of the university should be in the business of disseminating ‘approved’ positions on complex and divisive political issues,” students from Harvard’s Undergraduate Council wrote in a letter to the school. “Prescribing party-line talking points stands in stark contrast to the College’s mission of fostering intellectual, social, and personal growth.”

The placemats, which offered “tips for talking to family,” were taken down amid criticism this week. They were the product of a collaboration between the college’s Office for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, and the Freshman Dean’s Office. They first appeared in Annenberg Hall, the freshman dining hall, last week.


School officials sent a letter to the community expressing their regret for promoting the posters.

In the joint letter, the dean of student life, Stephen Lassonde, and Thomas Dingman, dean of freshmen, acknowledged that the placemats distributed in the dining hall “failed to account for the many viewpoints that exist on our campus.”

“Our goal was to provide a framework for you to engage in conversations with peers and family members as you return home for the winter break,” they wrote. “However, it was not effectively presented and it ultimately caused confusion in our community. On behalf of the Office of Student Life and the Freshman Dean’s Office, we offer our sincere apologies for this situation.”


The placemats featured four colored squares that surrounded a white plate. Each square posed a hypothetical question about a certain topic, followed by a suggested response that could be used to address those questions.

One block was titled “Black Murders in the Street,” a reference to the issue of shooting deaths of black people by police around the nation. The block posed the question, “Why didn’t they just listen to the officer? If they had just obeyed the law this wouldn’t have happened.”

As a suggested answer to that query, Harvard officials wrote: “Do you think the response would be the same if it was a white person being pulled over? In many incidents that result in the death of a black body in the street, these victims are not breaking the law and are unarmed.”

It then referenced the shooting death of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy who was killed by police while in a Cleveland park in November 2014.

Another block on the placemats addressed the “house master” title at Harvard, which officials voted to change this year, in part because of its connotations to slavery.

A third block took on the topic of allowing Syrian refugees into the country and addressed Islamophobia.

The fourth block was reserved for questions about student activism and “black students complaining.”

Backtracking on their initial approach, the school said the use of the placemats “runs counter to the school’s educational goals.”


“We appreciate the feedback that we have received about this initiative. Moving forward we will, with your continued input, support the growth and the development of independent minds,” officials wrote in their letter.

Steve Annear can be reached
at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.