Diversity Questionnaire Response

Candidate for Overseer

Catherine A. Gellert AB ’93 cum laude

Director, Windcrest Partners
New York, New York

1. How important should diversity be at Harvard? What strategies should the University pursue regarding this? (Please discuss specific programs and policies if you can.)  

            Creating a diverse and inclusive community is at the heart of what Harvard needs to do to “educate the citizens and citizen leaders of tomorrow”, to borrow the phrase Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana often uses.  In a world that is increasingly global and where technology shrinks boundaries, being both exposed to new ideas as well as being culturally sensitive to them should be the essence of being a Harvard graduate, of any school.  Diversity alone is not a precondition for inclusion or equality.  Every constituent at Harvard (students, faculty, staff, and alumni) brings a variety of racial, geographic, religious, political, sexual, and socioeconomic views.  If Harvard is true to its educational mission based in the principles in a liberal arts education, then it needs to provide both a community and a learning environment that allows for full expression and exploration of a variety of ideas.

            As for specific strategies, I believe creating a diverse community goes beyond admissions decisions and faculty hiring.  It is the range of ideas and experiences that happen any day, week, month, or year on campus.  For example, on a recent visit to campus I had the chance to hear a lecture at the Radcliffe Institute from Viet Thanh Nguyen on history, identity, and politics in writing.  The next day, I attended a performance at the American Repertory Theater called “Hear Word” acted by a cast of Nigerian women who used spoken work to describe the struggles of women in their home country.  Both of these events were sold out, and included time for students, staff, and the community to engage in dialogue.  The University needs to create many more different forums for diverse thoughts and ideas.

 

2. How can Harvard encourage more diversity among its alumni leaders and activities? (If not discussed above.) 

            While alumni feel positively about Harvard, they do not feel connected.  This is the high level finding of an independent research study of alumni attitudes conducted five years ago.  I have been fortunate to be on the committee that has worked with these findings to create programing to create social connectedness.  During my tenure on the Harvard Alumni Association Executive Committee, there have been weekends to bring back black alumni, female alumnae, alumni from the arts, alumni in public service, and the Gender & Sexuality caucus.  There have also been forums for First Generation Alumni to gather.  These efforts help alumni see what has changed within the university, as well as give current students exposure to the broader Harvard community.    

            In my own experience of traveling on behalf of the Harvard Alumni Association (to locations ranging from Bulgaria, to Brazil, to Australia), I have been awed by the diversity of our alumni body, and how they all have a shared mission to strengthen the Harvard community.  With over 195 clubs in more than 70 countries, we do have a very diverse alumni community.  The challenge is to make sure they all feel the sense of belonging and connectedness.  With attention and vigilance, there are more opportunities to bring individuals from different communities together to give them informed and intentional opportunities to learn from each other.    

 

3. Please state your views on affirmative action and race-conscious admissions. 

            With the view that education is the way to transform society, I believe affirmative action and race-conscious admissions are essential to achieving this mission.  While the admissions process needs to include metrics of academic and other achievements, it also needs to be sensitive to challenges applicants from non-traditional backgrounds bring that are not always quantifiable.  All other institutions of higher education watch Harvard’s policies around admissions.  I believe the University should be at the forefront of recruiting as diverse and representative population across all of its schools.  To me the continued growth in applicants to Harvard College is evidence that the dream of attending Harvard becomes the desire to pursue higher education wherever that may occur.  The ripple effect of Harvard’s commitment to attract underrepresented minorities is immeasurable in my opinion. 

 

4. What do you think Harvard's role should be in creating a more equitable, inclusive and just society? 

            As discussed above, I believe Harvard plays a unique role in the world.  Graduates across the university have roles in all ranks of government and civil society, and as such are shaping the future of tomorrow.  Attending Harvard provides unparalleled access to a range of opportunities, and allows students to challenge their thinking and become voices and leaders for tomorrow.  Our faculty should also be held to the same standards of academic and intellectual curiosity.  If Harvard is living its motto of “Veritas”, it is producing thought leaders who promote an inclusive and just society.

 

5. What steps have you taken to bring diversity and inclusion to your workplace or to an organization that you have been involved with

            Having pursued a career in finance that has taken me from very large firms down to very small organizations, I have had first hand experiences in seeing how diversity is greater than a statistic, but rather a culture of inclusivity and belonging.  Some of the places I have worked that while on paper were very diverse had almost uniquely singular patterns of thinking.  This has led me to think a lot about the topic of “cultural capital”, and being mindful of the ways to uncouple diversity from a sense of inequality. 

            To give a specific example of this topic, it was during my tenure with the Harvard Alumni Association that the first ever “Freshman Convocation” was held.  Now in its sixth year, it is considered a “tradition” at Harvard.  Organized by the Freshman Dean’s office, in partnership with many other parts of the College Administration, it is a conscious attempt to start incoming students all on the same page and foster a sense of belonging.  Seeing the success of this endeavor should inspire the University to think about more programs fostering the same philosophy.

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