Does language matter? Harvard and Princeton to dump 'master' title

More US colleges and universities are making changes to encourage diversity and eliminate racism on campus, both in language and action. 

(Ryan Flynn/New Haven Register via AP)
Yale University students and supporters participate in a march across campus to demonstrate against what they see as racial insensitivity at the Ivy League school on Monday, Nov. 9, 2015, in New Haven, Conn.

The term “master,” long used to identify professors who serve as advisers and overseers of academic programs, is now being dropped from the vernacular at some Ivy League universities due to its evocation of inequality.

Critics say the title “master” likens the undersigned to slave owners, as the term was used when slavery was widespread in the US. Administrators at Princeton University described the title as “anachronistic and historically vexed,” when officially dropping it last month.

Harvard University Dean Rakesh Khurana also announced last week that the university will change the title of “house master” in order to “ensure that the college’s rhetoric, expectations, and practices around our historically unique roles reflects and serves the 21st century needs of residential student life.”

Yale University has not yet officially decided to drop the title, but President Peter Salovey told the Associated Press that a decision will be made before the summer. Yale professor Stephen Davis, who has publicly rejected the title, wrote in the Yale Daily News, “I think there should be no context in our society or in our university in which an African-American student, professor or staff member — or any person, for that matter — should be asked to call anyone ‘master.”’

Racism-promoting language has become a topic of contention at colleges and universities in recent years, particularly as students call for greater equality and diversity recognition. Administrators are taking note, and taking action.

Hank Bounds, current President of the University of Nebraska system, recently attended an on-campus Black Lives Matter rally to meet with student leaders and has plans to complete diversity audits on all campuses as well as hire a chief diversity officer to foster campus diversity.

Mr. Bounds previously served as commissioner of higher education in Mississippi, successfully helping University of Mississippi become the university with the highest percentage of African American faculty in the country.

Only five universities nationwide have more than five percent black faculty, according to an analysis of federal data by The Associated Press.

The University of Mississippi has the largest percentage of African American faculty, with 6.29 percent. It also has the highest percentage of black students: 15.26 percent. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Alabama, the University of Georgia, and the University of South Carolina at Columbia are the only other schools with more than 1 in 20 African American faculty members.

And at University of Missouri, students forced the system president to resign over allegations of racial bias. Students have called for an increase in African American faculty from the current 3 percent to 10 percent by the 2017-2018 school year.

For liberal arts colleges, the statistics are only slightly better. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education reported that 11 of the top 24 liberal arts colleges have at least a 5 percent black faculty, as opposed to just 3 out of 28 leading universities.

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