Diversity Questionnaire Response
Candidate for Overseer
Meredith “Max” Hodges AB ’03 cum laude, MBA ’10 with distinction
Executive Director, Boston Ballet
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.)
Diversity is essential at Harvard, with two critical perspectives in mind: first, diversity is fundamental to the quality of the educational experience itself; and second, I believe it is important to continually increase equity of access to the benefits of a Harvard education. As the child of two lifelong public school teachers, I have always believed that education is the single most important source of opportunity and advancement. Like so many fellow alumni, my Harvard experience was transformative, and had a profound effect on my personal and professional trajectory.
Diversity at Harvard is necessary to this transformative educational experience. Engaging with students and faculty of different backgrounds, perspectives, and life experiences is a critical part of the educational journey. In classroom dialogue and in late-night discussions in the dining hall, we learn much more from our differences than from what we have in common. As a Harvard undergrad, I was deeply inspired by the diversity of passions and pursuits among my classmates. They demanded to know my passion too: among brilliantly multifaceted peers, Harvard is where I started to articulate my own ‘defining characteristics’, and my chosen path in the creative sector. The University must ensure we are continually increasing this diversity on campus: including diversity of ethnicity, race, gender and sexual orientation, socioeconomics, geography, and students who are the first in their family to attend college.
I believe it is equally important to acknowledge that diversity of the student body is essential from the perspective of equity and access. A Harvard education can have a profound impact on a person’s professional career, leadership opportunities, and general enfranchisement. The University must strive to provide this opportunity to a diverse population, including significant numbers of historically underrepresented minorities and socioeconomic groups. As discussed further below, continual advancement of admissions policies, recruitment of a more diverse applicant pool, generous financial aid, support systems for students, and even resources for alumni are all critical to ensuring that Harvard is broadening, not narrowing, opportunity and advancement in our society.
2. How can Harvard encourage more diversity among its alumni leaders and activities? (If not discussed above.)
Organizational diversity and inclusion can be a self-reinforcing cycle, in that as diversity increases in one aspect of an organization - particularly the most visible aspects, or highest levels of leadership - the greater the likelihood of attracting diverse participation elsewhere in the organization. During my leadership of Boston Ballet, we have been pleased that as diversity among our 70 professional dancers has increased (our current Company represents 16 nationalities; over 30% identify as Hispanic, Asian, African-American, South Asian, or biracial; and 42% are at least bilingual), and as we have had increasing success recruiting more diverse board members, particularly on the Ballet’s Board of Overseers (discussed further below), we have been pleased to see measurable growth in the diversity of our audiences. These efforts must be careful and consistent, and the Ballet certainly still has significant work in front of us, but it is energizing to know that efforts in one area of the organization bear fruit more widely.
At Harvard, I similarly believe that diversity among alumni leaders and activities could be positively influenced by increased diversity among Harvard’s most visible groups and prominent leadership:
Faculty and university leadership. Alumni will want to meet and know diverse faculty (including racial diversity, gender diversity, age diversity, and diverse areas of study). Last year, I had the pleasure to serve on the Advisory Board for the HAA Arts Alumni Weekend “Question + Create”. The panelists at the conference were a terrific showcase of Harvard’s newer faculty additions, including Claire Chase, Professor of the Practice of Music, and Cassandra Extavour, Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology and Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. I know many alumni left the conference feeling energized to stay more connected to today’s faculty.
Students. Alumni of underrepresented groups may be motivated by the opportunity to mentor and support students with similar identities, which would have a further positive impact on alumni participation.
Alumni Board. Increasing diversity among volunteer board leaders will further encourage broader alumni participation. As with the Ballet’s work on our ambassadorial Board of Overseers, increasing diversity among a group formally charged with ambassadorship allows Harvard to gain access to the broader networks and communities of these alumni.
I again acknowledge that these suggestions require careful and consistent work, and that this is not an effort that will produce dramatic results in a short period of time. Nevertheless, the self-reinforcing nature of this work makes it particularly worthwhile.
3. Please state your views on affirmative action and race-conscious admissions.
I believe that affirmative action and race-conscious admissions are necessary, but not sufficient, to ensuring a diverse class of undergraduates and graduate students at Harvard. In addition to these admissions policies, I would advocate significant attention to:
The applicant pool. Harvard must continue to invest in encouraging underrepresented groups to apply in greater numbers. This involves marketing and recruitment efforts, pre-college programs, and other efforts to widen the top of the funnel in the application process.
Financial aid. To ensure broad access to the benefits of a Harvard education, Harvard must continue to invest in generous and need-blind financial aid. We should be aiming towards the ideal that no student should have to turn down Harvard because of financial considerations. Generous financial aid also has the power to grant students of all backgrounds more freedom to pursue career paths based on interest and passion over financial necessity. At HBS, the Social Enterprise Initiative is a strong example of this kind of support. Grants to students and even alumni who choose non-profit work support a greater diversity of ambition among graduates. I personally benefited from these programs; ongoing financial support from the Social Enterprise Initiative allowed me to pursue a non-profit career directly after graduation, despite substantial student loans.
Success once enrolled. In addition to admitting students from underrepresented groups, Harvard should continue to invest in the student support infrastructure needed to ensure that all reach their potential. For example, recent reporting in the New York Times has highlighted the difficulties faced by students who are the first in their family to attend college; during my years at HBS, it was the gender achievement gap in particular that was a key campus issue. While women at HBS on average perform better than their male counterparts on written exams and assignments, we are far underrepresented among Baker Scholars and other honor listings. Several efforts were underway at HBS to investigate this, including videotaping class discussions to reduce bias in grading class participation. This kind of constant inquiry and improvement is a critical part of ensuring persistent and growing representation of underrepresented groups in the student body.
4. What do you think Harvard's role should be in creating a more equitable, inclusive and just society?
Harvard shapes future generations of leaders in government, science, business, academia, and many more facets of our society. It shapes these leaders through classroom education and the campus experience; but with its admissions policies it also chooses who has access to Harvard’s educational resources and the leadership opportunities afforded by a Harvard degree. I do believe that Harvard should work actively to broaden, not narrow, opportunity and advancement in our society. Recruiting and supporting a diverse student body should be considered a critical piece of this charge.
The future of our society is an urgent subject both global – in this political moment, in which leadership in Washington and many other nations seem to be backing away from the ideals of inclusiveness and equitability – and deeply personal. My husband Tarik (HBS 2011) and I had our first child in 2017, and we have begun to see the world through his eyes too.
I acknowledge that for a complex and multifaceted university, the scope of this challenge – to create a more just society – can be dizzyingly large. A charge like this could encompass virtually every aspect of Harvard: the topics faculty choose to research, the role of ethics in the curriculum, the way the endowment is invested, the kinds of careers Harvard encourages alumni to pursue. But admissions is a good place to start; by helping select and educate future leaders from a broad array of identities and life experiences, Harvard ensures broader viewpoints and vision among those shaping our society’s future path.
5. What steps have you taken to bring diversity and inclusion to your workplace or to an organization that you have been involved with?
Under my leadership, Boston Ballet has undertaken a multi-year effort to transform its own Board of Overseers: to recruit and develop an Overseer board that is diverse, inclusive, and reflective of the depth and breadth of greater Boston. We believe these efforts are critical to meaningful, long-term change within the Ballet’s overall board leadership, increasing audience size and diversity, maintaining our relevance in the Boston community, and ensuring organizational sustainability.
Boston Ballet is the country’s fourth-largest ballet company, a non-profit organization with $35M in revenue and 700 artists and employees. Our Board of Overseers is positioned largely as an ambassadorial board, and, with 70 members well-versed in the Ballet’s artistic product and organizational goals, it is intended to help the Ballet reach broader networks of audiences and patrons. In my first season at the Ballet, we quantified an urgent challenge: only a small minority of the Ballet’s Overseers identified as non-Caucasian.
In 2015, we launched an Overseer-led Inclusion Committee, working to achieve greater racial and ethnic diversity in institutional governance. Strategies have included prospecting (broadly, with marketing and PR efforts, peer-to-peer meetings with community leaders, and partner events; and more narrowly, looking within existing Ballet constituencies for more inclusive Overseer prospects); thoughtful pipeline management and recruiting; and revised onboarding and retention strategies. We have been pleased with the persistence and results of these efforts to date: by the close of 2017, we had more than doubled the number of Overseers from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. We recognize that substantial progress still must be made, and the work continues.
By increasing diversity within this ambassadorial group, the Ballet gains access to the broader networks and communities of these new Overseers, with second-order effects on the diversity of patrons and audiences, and (we believe) gradual diminishment of historical perceptions of institutional exclusivity. As Boston Ballet Trustees are often recruited from the Board of Overseers, greater diversity among the Overseers provides a more diverse pipeline of individuals for higher levels of organizational leadership. Internally, this work inspires and validates the expansion of across-the-board efforts to address diversity in our audience, Company roster, and Boston Ballet School.