When Harvard president Drew Faust recently told the 50th reunion class of 1967 that “this fall’s freshman class will be the first majority minority class in the college’s history,” the audience applauded. The incoming freshmen will look very different from those who arrived in the fall of 1963, when black students – both African American and African – were only one percent of their number, and men outnumbered women by 4-1. In effect, the audience, which was composed preponderantly of old white men, was applauding its own passing.
It’s true they won’t be personally affected by the changes. Their college days are long past, their careers largely over, and no one can take away the advantages they’ve had. “In many ways,” remembered one, “my story is the result of what is today a core unfairness in our troubled society. Many people have not had these advantages, and many of them had more talents. I will never know how I would have turned out without these advantages. And if there is any obligation for all this luck, I’ve met it only in small letters.”
In these times when so many are building barricades to insulate themselves from others, the applause of these old white men seems a quaint throwback to another era – to a tradition, not of entitlement only, but also of stewardship, one that aspires to build bridges instead of walls, one that welcomes a future that is different from the past. It’s also how we built, however imperfectly, the diverse country of America.