After months of criticism and deliberation, Harvard University has dumped the title of “master,” in use for over a century, to appease activists who say it is reminiscent of slave masters.
In a letter sent to the school community late Wednesday, Harvard dean Michael Smith said that the faculty members in charge of Harvard’s 12 residential colleges will be labeled “faculty deans” instead of “house masters.”
“This title reflects our House leaders’ high standing in the joint academic and administrative hierarchy of the College and is easily understood by prospective students and their families, who might not (yet!) be deeply familiar with Harvard College’s residential system,” Smith said in his message, according to The Boston Globe. He took pains to emphasize that despite the change, the previous title of master was not “wrong” and alumni should feel welcome to continue referring to their old masters by that title.
The change will be made immediately, after Harvard previously pledged in December to start phasing the title out. A similar move has already been made at Princeton University, where house masters became “heads.”
The mess over the title of master is tied closely to a recent spate of race-related protests on American campuses. At Harvard, Hispanic protesters issues a set of demands in November demanding the title be changed. Critics argue the word “master” is evocative of American slavery, where black slaves were lorded over by white masters.
In fact, the academic title of “master” was totally unrelated to the institution of slavery. It derives from the Latin word “magister” referring to teachers or leaders. The use of the term at Harvard was borrowed from English schools such as Oxford University, which have used the master title for centuries.
For the time being, at least, masters degrees will have their name unaffected.
Harvard isn’t the only place where activists want things renamed. At Cornell University, some activists want to change the name of Cornell Plantations, the school’s botanical garden, because it is too evocative of slave plantations (though, like with master, the linguistic relationship is incidental).
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