The Harvard placemat debacle has one upside: In a season of well-meaning but overzealous social-justice crusades on campuses nationwide, there’s still a point where almost everyone can agree that the ideological fervor has gone too far.

Recently at Harvard, the Freshman Dean’s Office and the Office for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion prepared a “Holiday Placemat for Social Justice” for use in certain campus dining halls. It listed questions that, administrators imagined, students might hear from unenlightened relatives over the holidays. For instance, on the protests at Yale: “Why are black students complaining? Shouldn’t they be happy to be in college?”


As if hearing such comments would make students lose all pulmonary function, the placemat urged them to “BREATHE.” It also proposed responses: “I don’t hear complaining. Instead I hear young people uplifting a situation that I may not experience.”

It wasn’t until the placemats had been printed, laminated, and put in use in certain dining halls that Harvard brass caught on to just how misguided the idea was. For one thing, the “placemat guide for holiday discussions on race and justice with loved ones” presumed that any right-minded student would agree with the diversity office’s take on current events, and that students’ relatives back home in flyover country were more or less barbarians.

Last month, a “Saturday Night Live” skit suggested that only Adele’s “Hello” could spare families a lot of awkward Thanksgiving conversation. That was funny. The stilted talking points on the Harvard placemat were also funny — just not on purpose.

Ironically, they appear to have united the Harvard community. University President Drew Gilpin Faust told The Harvard Crimson that the initiative was “a really bad idea.” Eighteen members of the school’s Undergraduate Council said in a letter that they “reject the premise that there is a ‘right’ way to answer the questions posed.”


Student-life administrators apologized, if not as straightforwardly as the situation warranted. Stephen Lassonde and Thomas Dingman — the dean of student life and the dean of freshmen, respectively — wrote to students Wednesday night that the placemat “was not effectively presented and it ultimately caused confusion in our community.” “Sorry we insulted your intelligence” would have sufficed.

As student protesters across the country press their colleges for more help in creating safe spaces for underprivileged groups, more diversity training is a common demand — and the more comprehensive and emphatic, the better. But Harvard’s placemat episode hints at the limits to what bureaucratic action can achieve.

During the “just say no” era of the 1980s, an antidrug pamphlet widely distributed in American high schools tried to suggest hip ways of fending off peer pressure. Sample retort: “Take off, hoser” — as if the drug dealers supposedly plaguing America’s schoolyards were all Canadian. The authors of the pamphlet wanted to help students negotiate sticky situations, but most teens who bothered to read it were flabbergasted at its obtuseness and condescension.

Harvard’s laminated discussion guide is a similarly odd artifact of a tumultuous era. (Sadly, none had shown up on eBay by Friday afternoon.) Today, colleges can help students discover the value of diversity and inclusion for themselves, through one-on-one experience with people from different backgrounds over the course of four years. But not all pro-diversity initiatives are equal, and some are little more than goofy verbiage on a placemat.


Dante Ramos can be reached at dante.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Facebook: facebook.com/danteramos or on Twitter: @danteramos.