By Aditya Agrawal
The Full Story
Donald Trump may have won the Massachusetts Republican primary, but the real estate mogul and Apprentice star inspires little love at Harvard, as Currier House administrators learned the hard way this past week.
Currier has found itself at the center of a free speech debate after it released a Housing Day video Sunday that featured a student impersonating Donald Trump. The House decided to take down the video four days after it was uploaded, after House residents expressed concern with the video.
Harvard’s twelve residential houses each release a House video in the lead up to the annual Housing Day when first year undergraduates are lotteried into a residential house for the remainder of their time at Harvard. This year’s housing day is slated for Thursday, March 10th. Housing Day videos traditionally showcase unique aspects of individual house, with an emphasis on House facilities and community.
The video shows Trump, played by Joseph Hall ‘16, surveying Harvard property. “We’re here at Harvard – it’s a very, very lucrative business opportunity,” says dummy Trump in the video. “I have spoken to President Faust; I am going to donate 500 million dollars and buy one of the Harvard houses.”
After nitpicking over each of the other eleven houses, the Trump-impersonator ultimately chooses Currier House. “This is the one for me. Everything here is huge,” he says.
A group of Currier Residents first approached Currier race relations tutor Avik Chatterjee, with concerns that “the video did not reflect the diversity and vibrancy of the Currier community.”
Currently the Republican Presidential frontrunner, Trump has achieved notoriety for his xenophobic and anti-Islam remarks through this entire election cycle. In June, Trump claimed
that he would force Mexico to build a wall across the US-Mexico border to stem the tide of illegal Mexican immigrants into the United States. He recently called for a ban
on all Muslim travel to the US. His rhetoric has carried far beyond TV screens and political rallies: in August, two white men beat up a homeless Hispanic man said they were inspired by Trump’s message on immigration.
After Chatterjee received the complaints, he called together a meeting of all Currier race relations tutors and Currier Faculty Deans, Elizabeth and Richard Wrangham. The group ultimately decided that the video be taken down from the official Currier House YouTube channel.
“To have a person, who has endorsed racism, endorsed by Currier…Currier to the larger community was not looking positive,” said Chatterjee at a townhall meeting Thursday evening.
Soon after the decision was taken, Chatterjee sent out an email to Currier residents Tuesday evening. “We have heard that there are concerns about the Currier housing video. Currier is a diverse and vibrant community, and especially going into housing day we want to make sure that everyone’s views are heard,” the email read.
The removal of the video, however, was never mentioned in the email. Students discovered that for themselves, when they tried to access the video after receiving the email.
A town hall was announced for Thursday night, with the aim of “hearing the views of a broad cross section of students and making a plan so incoming sophomores know that they are joining a welcoming house.”
Strictly off the record, over sixty Currier residents attended the town hall. Entire blocking groups crowded the Currier Fishbowl, a massive common space that greets students upon their entry into the House. Student pulled up chairs from the nearby dining hall, while latecomers struggled to find even standing space.
Currier Faculty Dean, Richard Wrangham, prefaced the discussion with the remark that “there was no intention to offend,” and commended the Currier House Committee(HoCo) Housing Day Chair, Katherine Barton, ‘16 for her efforts in creating the video. As the Housing Day Chair, Barton is responsible for planning and executing all Housing-Day related activities for Currier. Barton was the only other person from the House who appeared in the Trump video, featuring as a news interviewer interviewing the dummy Trump.
During the course of the town hall, Chatterjee revealed that the video had in fact been both pre-screened and approved by both a committee of Tutors and the Faculty Deans.
Tensions ran high through the hour long discussion, with spirited back-and-forths.
By the end, all parties reached a collective decision to film an alternative Housing Day video on the spot. Chatterjee, alongside a group of Currier students, had stayed up late the previous night, penning Currier-themed lyrics to the tune of Bob Marley’s No Woman, No Cry.
Half an hour after the town hall ended, a group of three hundred odd Currier residents stood huddled, arm-in-arm, swaying to the lilt of Marley’s evergreen melody.
“Everything’s gonna be all right –
Everything’s gonna be all right –
You’re gonna be a Currierite!”
If only all conflicts could end with a good song or two. The larger implications of the video’s removal did not escape many observers, both residents and non-residents of Currier.
Echoes of the ‘safe space’ debate that paralyzed Yale and Mizzou last year resonated in discussions on social media. One Currier resident wrote on Facebook:
The safe space propaganda on campus is starting to reach dangerous limits – in a world in which we criticize Trump for trying to solve existing problems by just banning everything and everyone, how are we putting ourselves at a higher respect by banning a video which ridicules him and his 2016 political campaign?
At time of going to press, the status had picked up a 113 likes. A comment that read “never too late to transfer” received 23 likes, while another reading “This is actual bullshit” received 19. Others summed up the situation in pithy phrases as “cry bullies,” or observed that “at least they were graduating before it gets worse.”
Yet, the arguments to keep the video were tempered well by arguments on the other side. One of the people interviewed, who did not wish to be identified by name in the article, said that Trump’s rhetoric has “real, dangerous implications for those it targets – Muslims and Latinos specifically.”
They observed that the video, while painstakingly made and of genuine artistic value, was not fit for the purposes of a Housing Day video specifically.
“The purpose of a Housing Day video is to bring together the entire House Community, to reflect the values of the community. If this video offends even some of our House members, can it claim to represent our House as whole?”
The debate also highlighted the possibility of larger systemic problems. Several persons interviewed after the town hall claimed they had wished to act or participate in the Housing Day video, yet the House Committee(HoCo) did not actively reach out to them. The Trump video that was eventually taken down only starred two students, both white.
This is the second year in a row that questions have been raised about the Currier Housing Day video, though the backlash was much more dispersed in 2015. The 2015 video
was set to the song Hanging Tree from The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I. The song, many claim
, has its roots in Jim Crow era lynchings of Black people.
One person claimed that the Currier HoCo, as a majority white body, did not engage with the needs and concerns of minority House members.
The town hall, which started at 09.30 PM, was not the only crowd-puller in Currier that evening. It was preceded shortly by University President Dean Faust’s visit.
Currier has a special place in President Faust’s heart: it is the only House on campus she has ever spent a night in.
Faust had dinner with a select group of Currier residents, after which she spoke to general students in a forum-style event. She spoke with particular pride of the diversity that Harvard has been able to achieve in the recent decades.
What she didn’t talk about upon was responsibility.
For with diversity comes responsibility. In an institution awash with slave-holding, eugenicist and anti-Semitic legacies, it may not be enough to simply get diverse individuals on campus.
How do you readjust the parameters of socialization, of interaction, of education really, on campus to account for a newly diverse student body? How do you make sure that you don’t get just diverse individuals, but diverse individuals who understand and learn from one another?
It’s a hard question to conceptualize, harder still to answer. But the implications are real, as the case of Currier and Donald Trump may so unfortunately show.