First African-American, first woman Harvard College Dean steps down, highlighting Ivy League's lack of diversity

ANALYSIS - Did Evelynn Hammonds, the first African-American and first woman to serve as Harvard College Dean, fall due to a pressure to be perfect?...

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In the wake of a controversy surrounding secret searches of faculty emails, Harvard College Dean Evelynn Hammonds — the first African-American and the first woman to serve in that role — announced that she will resign on July 1 to return to teaching and research.

Some believe her transition out of a leadership position at one of the most prestigious spaces of higher learning in America is an indicator of the difficulties blacks face in attaining and retaining these roles.

“These elite institutions are the battleground,” Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, MSNBC analyst, author and professor of sociology at Georgetown University, told theGrio. “That’s what’s at stake. America is trying to remain America by keeping those as bastions of privilege and power that as much as possible exclude — not include — people of color and other minorities, including women. I mean, there have been strides, of course. But Malcolm X said you can’t put a knife in my back nine inches, pull it out six inches and call it progress.”

A respected academic leader steps down

Hammonds had served as dean of Harvard College for five years when her departure was announced on May 28.

In a news release posted on the Harvard Public Affairs and Communications website, Hammonds said she will head a new program on race and gender in science and medicine at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University.

“Being dean of Harvard College has been an immensely rewarding experience for me, but I miss engaging deeply with my scholarship and teaching,” said Hammonds.

The announcement made no mention of the months-old email search controversy, which resulted from attempts to find out who leaked information about a college cheating scandal to student newspaper The Harvard Crimson.

The history of the controversy

According to The Boston Globe, after more than 100 students reportedly cheated on a take-home exam last May and a confidential faculty memo regarding this matter made it to The Crimson, university administrators secretly probed the email accounts of 16 resident deans to find the leak, searching subject lines only. Those searches were authorized by Hammonds and Michael Smith, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Hammonds later admitted that she ordered another round of searches without notifying Smith, although she had initially told the press she had not conducted any additional searches. The revelation prompted The Crimson to call for Hammonds’ resignation.

“Since Hammonds provided misinformation regarding the highly sensitive issue of email searches,” the April Crimson editorial stated, “and since she violated clear policy regarding those searches, her presence at the helm of the College stands as a roadblock to rebuilding trust between students, faculty, and the administration. For the good of the University, Hammonds must resign.”

Hammonds’ high praise from Harvard brass

In the resignation announcement, Harvard President Drew Faust and Smith offered only high praise for the outgoing dean.

Faust said Hammonds has “fully invested herself in improving the experience of our undergraduates both inside and outside the classroom, and in promoting a culture of inclusion and community across the College.”

Smith called her “an important partner in our efforts to reinvigorate the student experience at Harvard College” and “deeply committed to the well-being of students and passionate about supporting their opportunities to explore their academic and extracurricular interests.”

Hammonds told The New York Times that the controversy did not factor into her decision to resign.

“I was never asked to step down,” Hammonds said. “I have been in discussions to return to academia and my research for some time.”

“The e-mail controversy was difficult, but it was not a motivating factor in my decision to step down as dean,” she said. Hammonds will take a sabbatical for the first time in 11 years before taking on her new duties at Harvard.

Black academics on the expectation of perfection

While Hammonds seems at peace with her decision, some find her circumstances disconcerting because they speak to the lengths black academics at top schools might feel pressured to go to in order to appear competent.

“It was personally very sad to me to see her have to step down because of something like this, but I also think, without trying to put words into her mouth, I also think that the pressure on her as a dean of color put her in this position,” Dr. Anthea Butler, associate professor of Religious Studies and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, told theGrio.

“The expectation is that you’re going to get to the bottom of this problem, and you don’t want to seem incompetent. You want to seem thorough,” said Butler. “You know that there are people there who are just thinking you have that position because you are a woman and a person of color, do you see? So I think because of what happened, she went to this extreme to get things done, because she did not want to be perceived as a person who would not take care of business. And that can make you get off-balance, too.”

Dyson believes Hammonds’ difficulties are a metaphor for what people of color face every day.

“Isn’t it ironic that the very thing that she’s come under criticism for is the very thing to which she is subject as a woman and a person of color — the kind of collective surveillance of the culture, except it doesn’t get called out that way,” he said. “That kind of scrutiny, that kind of examination, that can sometimes lead to overdoing it to make sure that you’re seen as competent in doing your job well.