Education

Harvard Abolishes ‘Master’ Title Because It Evokes Slavery

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Blake Neff Reporter
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Harvard University announced Tuesday it will abolish the title of “master” for those in charge of its residential houses in response to complaints the word carries unwanted connotations of slavery.

Harvard College dean Rakesh Khurana announced the change in an email to the campus, according to The Harvard Crimson.

“I write on behalf of myself and my fellow residential House leaders to let you know that the House Masters have unanimously expressed desire to change their title,” Khurana says. “In the coming weeks, the College will launch a process in which members of the House leaders’ docket committee, working with senior College team members and the House leadership community as a whole, will suggest a new title that reflects the current realities of the role.”

Khurana didn’t say what title will replace master.

The title “master” for the heads of Harvard’s 12 residential houses is borrowed from the British universities of Oxford and Cambridge, but recently the term is being assailed by student activists who believe it evokes slavery and is therefore offensive to black students. Black Lives Matter-aligned protesters at Harvard, Yale and Princeton (which also use the title) all demand the title be replaced, and it looks like those demands are being heeded. Princeton announced two weeks ago it will replace the title with “head of the college,” and while the title is still in use at Yale, at least one master is refusing to go by it. (RELATED: Yale Professor Seeks To Abolish The Term ‘Master’)

“I have found the title of the office I hold deeply problematic given the racial and gendered weight it carries,” Yale professor Stephen Davis says in an email last August. “I think there should be no context in our society or in our university in which an African-American student, professor, or staff member—or any person, for that matter—should be asked to call anyone ‘master’ … And there should be no context where male-gendered titles should be normalized as markers of authority.”

In actuality, the connection between college masters and slave masters is non-existent, other than the use of the same word. “Master” is derived from Latin and medieval French, and it has been used in an academic context since the 1300s, before the development of trans-Atlantic slavery.

Harvard’s decision to abolish the title of master comes just a few days after it announced it’s also considering changing Harvard Law School’s over 150-year-old seal. The seal is modeled on the family crest of the Royall family, which endowed Harvard’s first law professorship. Students want the seal changed because the Royall family owned slaves.

Both announcements come in the wake of an alleged hate crime two weeks ago where portraits of black professors were discovered with pieces of black tape on them. Police are investigating the matter, and no perpetrator or motive has been discovered. Randall Kennedy, one of the professors whose portrait was targeted, wrote a piece in The New York Times last week warning the incident could be a hoax. (RELATED: Harvard Roiled By Black Tape ‘Hate Crime’)

“Perhaps the defacer is white. But maybe not,” Kennedy writes. “Perhaps the taping is meant to convey anti-black contempt or hatred for the African-American professors. But maybe it was meant to protest the perceived marginalization of black professors, or was a hoax meant to look like a racial insult in order to provoke a crisis, or was a rebuke to those who have recently been taping over the law school’s seal, which memorializes a family of slaveholders from colonial times.”

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