Dean David N. Hempton on Belonging at Harvard

November 1, 2019
HDS Dean David N. Hempton
HDS Dean David N. Hempton / Photo: The Memorial Church at Harvard

A few years ago, Harvard President Drew Faust commissioned a University-wide Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging.

The presidential charge delivered to the committee, under the title “From Diversity to Belonging,” states that: “A community that draws on the widest possible pool of talent, one that fully embraces individuals from varied backgrounds, cultures, races, identities, life experiences, perspectives, beliefs, and values, is a more just community. It is also an environment in which learning, creativity, and discovery can flourish. Harvard aspires to be such a place. Diversity, inclusion, and belonging are not incidental concerns; they are fundamental to Harvard’s mission and identity."

The charge goes on to state that “across and within its twelve Schools, Harvard offers its students, faculty, and staff many different experiential pathways but also elements of a common culture. What are the defining characteristics of Harvard’s common culture? That is, what is the lived experience of diversity, inclusion, empowerment, and belonging among students, staff, and faculty? How can we transform that culture to achieve not just inclusion but full belonging and empowerment for all members of our community?” 

The recently completed Pulse Survey on Inclusion and Belonging was recommended by the Presidential Task Force to take the pulse of belonging at Harvard based on agreement or disagreement with the statement: “I feel like I belong at Harvard.” 

But what does belonging to, or at, Harvard mean for all the members of the Harvard community—students, staff, and faculty? What does belonging to anything mean?

I can easily see why people want to come to Harvard, connect with Harvard, network at Harvard, exploit the corporate brand of Harvard, boast of being at Harvard, revel in the prestige of Harvard, or even make money from Harvard’s credentialing. But what about belonging at Harvard? 

Diversity and inclusion are vital parts of belonging, but I can also see that the belonging word resonates with something even deeper in the human condition.  You know that when someone says to you, as they have to me every now and again, “you know, I feel that I really belong here” that they are talking about something more than diversity and inclusion, though obviously not something less than that. What do people mean when they say they really belong somewhere? Here is my stab at the six most important aspects of belonging.

1. First, that to which we belong, not just affiliated with, should have some morally compelling reason for its existence beyond the exercise of privilege, cultural power, and the generation of resources for material comfort.

I call this the ethical component of belonging.

2. Belonging to an institution, as with belonging to a family, involves the acceptance of our own frailties and those of others in a spirit of generosity and mutual forbearance, even when we fiercely disagree with and irritate one another.

There is no belonging without self-acceptance. In the words of Sarah Ban Breathnach, “[I]t doesn’t matter whom you love or where you move from or to, you always take yourself with you. If you don’t know who you are, or if you’ve forgotten or misplaced her, then you’ll always feel as if you don’t belong. Anywhere.”

I call this the human component of belonging.

3. We cannot belong anywhere where we know people in our community are being humiliated or diminished or treated with disrespect. Desmond Tutu calls this ubuntu.

“A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”

I call this the social justice component of belonging.

4. A true sense of belonging comes only with a sense that our deepest longing for belonging is shared by everyone. F. Scott Fitzgerald writes that that is “part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”

That quote is not only about the importance of belonging, but is also a ringing endorsement of why the arts and humanities matter at Harvard just as much as the big battalions of science and technology, which at their best are informed by the same values.

I call this the universal longing of belonging.

5. We can’t belong anywhere if we don’t want to belong and take on the responsibility and commitment of belonging. As long as we are content to stand aloof from community with a critical spirit of detachment, disengagement, or judgment we will never belong.  We may achieve a kind of smug self-satisfaction that way, but we will never discover the warmth of heart and spirit that belonging brings.

I call this the responsible component of belonging.

6. Finally, any well-functioning family or community has a set of characteristics that include a desire to look out for another, an ability to create inclusive celebrations and rituals, a commitment to kindness, a spirit of forgiveness, and a lightness of touch often characterized by a gentle humor that does not operate at someone else’s expense.

I call this the belonging aspect of belonging.

Belonging is a powerful word. It resonates with self-acceptance, with community, with a sense of home, of somehow being where we are meant to be, and where we can flourish individually and corporately.

Belonging is deeply ethical, transformatively human, connected to social justice, rooted in a universal longing, and is something which every one of us must take responsibility for.

Belonging is a beautiful word. It is worth striving for. It should be who we are.

David N. Hempton is Dean of the Faculty of Divinity, Alonzo L. McDonald Family Professor of Evangelical Theological Studies, and John Lord O'Brian Professor of Divinity.