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Harvard backtracks after dean praises judge’s suggestion for implicit bias training in admissions

Harvard center previously imposed implicit bias training on staff

Though Harvard University escaped liability for alleged systemic bias against Asian-American applicants in a court ruling last month, the federal judge gave the university some suggestions on how it could remain in her good graces.

U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs specifically floated implicit bias training for Harvard admissions officers, who had previously issued uniformly low “personal ratings” for Asian-American applicants.

Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana, the moving force behind Harvard’s zero-tolerance policy for single-sex organizations and the highest-profile administrator after President Lawrence Bacow, praised the suggestion in an interview with The Harvard Crimson last week.

So that means Harvard is going to train admissions officers in implicit bias, right?

Not so fast.

Asked by The College Fix Wednesday what to make of Khurana’s interview, a spokesperson for the university emphasized Thursday morning that Khurana has no role in setting admissions policies. She has not responded to a followup query Thursday morning.

Burroughs actually had a few suggestions for Harvard, the Crimson notes, but Khurana was smitten with one in particular:

She suggested Harvard provide admissions officers with implicit bias training, keep clear guidelines on the consideration of race in the admissions process, and monitor statistics for potential racial disparities.

Asked about Burroughs’s suggestions, Khurana singled out the value of implicit bias training. He noted that Harvard currently offers similar training for teaching fellows, faculty, and staff.

“We are far from a perfect institution,” he said. “I think figuring out how all of us become aware of the biases, stereotypes, and taken-for-granted assumptions that we have, and continually finding ways to be aware of that is something that has to happen at all levels of the institution.”

Spokesperson Rachel Dane did not directly answer whether the “offers” and language means that teaching fellows, faculty and staff are required to take such training, or may simply avail themselves of training voluntarily.

“I am not sure how you’re getting required from the Dean’s comments, but hopefully some clarification is helpful,” she wrote in an email: “Dean Khurana is the Dean of Harvard College and does not oversee admissions in any way. He was merely commenting on the judge’s ruling and his thoughts.”

Khurana went beyond commenting, however. He said “figuring out how all of us become aware” of biases – presumably including admissions officers – “has to happen at all levels of the institution.”

Dane continued that Khurana was praising the implicit-bias research of Harvard social psychologist Mahzarin Banaji. The link provided by Dane goes to a donation page for the professor’s Project Implicit nonprofit, which promotes her Washington Post video from last year.

MORE: Student groups face punishment for electing single-sex group members

“Any complex machine has to have shortcuts,” Banaji says in the video, referring to the human brain, which uses previously gathered information “in new contexts without having to think about it again.”

Implicit bias is “the thumbprint of the culture on our brain,” the result of “our biology” interacting with ideas from culture about what is good and bad and then making decisions, she says, “like who are you going to hire.”

It’s not clear why Dane pointed The Fix toward Banaji’s work, which is not mentioned by Khurana and whose Project Implicit was created by professors at three universities, not just Harvard. The project website makes no mention of offering trainings for Harvard employees.

But a clue emerges in the video where Banaji emphasizes that implicit bias training cannot be forced:

Something that we do know from the scientific literature is that mandatory training does not work. You bring people into a room and you succumb them to what you call diversity training, and what you will produce is either no effect or you will actually see a reverse effect. … But if you do your training in a voluntary way, where people are encouraged to come, and you make your training exciting, interesting, smart, then there is a chance that that training is going to take effect.

Yet Harvard has not ruled out mandatory implicit bias training in the past.

The Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, affiliated with the Harvard School of Public Health, imposed training on its staff last year in response to a viral video of its white staffer asking a nonwhite neighbor to quiet down her child so her own kids can nap.

Spokesperson Dane has not answered a followup query: why the Harvard community should not take Khurana’s praise for implicit bias training, in response to a federal judge’s suggestion, as representing the administration’s view and a possible new direction for admissions officers.

She has not specified that Harvard only offers implicit bias training on a voluntary basis and has no plans to change that for any group.

Read the Crimson interview and watch Banaji’s video.

MORE: Harvard center imposes implicit bias training after staffer’s viral video

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Greg spent several years as a technology policy reporter and editor for Warren Communications News in Washington, D.C., and guest host on C-SPAN’s “The Communicators.” He co-founded the alternative newspaper PUNCH and served as a reporter, editor and columnist for The Falcon at Seattle Pacific University.

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