Decolonize Harvard?

In order to address issues of race, racism and colonialism in the university, Visiting Assistant Professor of Latinx Studies Marcelo Garzo Montalvo (Committee on Ethnicity, Migration, Rights) proposed to host a Bok Exploratory Seminar focusing on the question of decolonization at Harvard. With Harvard as an important point of departure for understanding the Western academy at large, this seminar series focused on four key terms/concepts that have shaped the foundations of modern research paradigms, pedagogies and institutional structures of higher education: (1) settler colonialism, (2) modernity/coloniality, (3) genocide/epistemicide, and (4) Eurocentrism. Each session began with a short presentation to introduce these particular frameworks as analytics for understanding structural racism in the curricular and disciplinary designs of the university, followed by break-out rooms and larger group discussions to develop next steps and ways to interrupt these dynamics in our classrooms and syllabi.

In appending a question mark to the title—"Decolonize Harvard?"—Prof. Garzo Montalvo sought to query the Harvard community’s appetite for this work, and to issue an invitation to participants, through their presence in the seminar and the work they would do subsequently, to answer that call-out. At what point in a decolonizing process, we might ask, does Harvard and the settler university cease to be recognizable as Harvard as such?

The context of this seminar emerges from efforts to respond to the national and international global reckonings with white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and other systems of power that are being brought into question yet again by another generation of activists. Summer 2020 was a particular moment of uprising that stands as the largest social movement – by the numbers – in the history of the United States as a settler nation-state, as a country. There was a re-articulation of demands for Black Lives Matter, of Land Back, of movements to stop violence against our Asian and Asian-American and Asian diasporic relatives, of Me Too, with a host of other social movements from below, which are asking us to attend to historical systems of power and violence that continue to dominate the experiences of many racialized, gendered, sexualized, and other colonized people globally, but especially here in the United States. In many ways, the seminar was a direct outgrowth of this moment and must give thanks to the intersectional organizing happening now, which is asking us to consider: how are these systems of power showing up in our different places of work, in our families, in our lives, in our communities? 

Here are some of the resources and best practices that emerged from Prof. Garzo Montalvo’s leadership of the seminar:


“It’s not often that social scientists talk about death outside of it being a research finding or observation, but it indeed stalks our struggle as scholars to challenge Eurocentric institutions. Eurocentric institutions, including the university, were all midwifed into existence by the actual physical deaths of colonised peoples...Decolonisation means prioritising the survival of colonised peoples above other interests. As scholars and activists, our work can influence policy and social movements that promote the survival of colonised people, ensuring they survive, physically and socially, to possibly join the academy or, if we want to be truly radical, perhaps subvert it all together.” 

“Understanding Eurocentrism as a Structural Problem of Undone Science,” William Jamal Richardson, p. 242

Following the work of William Jamal Richardson, we continued to ask: what does it look like to decolonize the university, the syllabus, the structure? This article served as a reminder of what is at stake in struggles to dismantle colonial institutions of power and knowledge. This work asks to move beyond diversity, equity and inclusion paradigms of creating safer spaces for marginalized students, or making it easier for marginalized people to get through the university. While this work is important triage, how does it detract from the larger project of undoing the colonial world itself? How can we think within yet beyond the university as a key node in the modern/colonial matrix of power and knowledge at large? In other words, how do our interventions in the academy connect to historical and contemporary struggles to dismantle global systems of settler colonialism, genocide, epistemicide, modernity/coloniality, and Eurocentrism? In this light, who does our work become accountable to? Is it held accountable to our tenure process and review? Is it held accountable to our disciplines and departments? Is it held accountable to our administration? Or is it held accountable to the global social movements who are asking for yet another global reckoning with these systems of power that continue to extract and plunder Mother Earth and create disproportionate “vulnerabilities to premature death” for marginalized communities?

This is the analysis we were building towards being able to articulate: why is it important to understand and frame Harvard as a settler colonial, genocidal, and Eurocentric institution? What do we do in light of that analysis, in light of that understanding?


In speaking of modernity and coloniality, we drew upon the work of theorists such as Walter Mignolo, Aníbal Quijano, Nelson Maldonado-Torres, and María Lugones. This theorizing of modernity/coloniality points to the ways in which modernity always already carries with it its “underside,” that is, coloniality. As settler colonialism asks us to look at particular parts of the ongoing colonial structure, modernity/coloniality asks us to analyze how that structure presents itself as “modernity” - as “progress” or “development” - without necessarily problematizing the underlying systems of power and violence that shape this structure, both historically and contemporarily. We situated modernity in time and place: a project of “the long 16th century” that begins in the European Renaissance and the idea of the “Discovery of the Americas,” and continues through the European Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. This modern/colonial structure persists through a system of “world capitalism” and rearticulates its logics through post-World War II notions of neoliberalism. Mignolo offers a metaphor for this darker side of modernity: "the part of the moon we do not see when we observe it from Earth." Therefore, a decolonial analysis seeks to unearth, to shift our perception, to account for the totality of modernity/coloniality.

This provides a temporal unit of analysis for understanding Harvard as a settler and modern/colonial institution, with its origins in 1636, emerging from the colonial imaginary of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in particular. We read Harvard in this way, through layers of a palimpsest, layers of a structure, as opposed to an otherwise linear approach that makes things that happened in the 16th century somehow irrelevant to what we're doing in our classrooms today. In a decolonial analysis, we seek to interrupt settler modernity/coloniality in the present tense.  

Another tool we developed here comes from Walter Mignolo’s (2003) theorizing of modernity as “a paradigm of newness.” This points to how modernity itself is a temporal project, in that it conceptualizes itself in terms of newness, in terms of “discovery.” Again, place-names express this logic - i.e. New England, New Spain, New France, New Amsterdam - this is renaming as rethinking and reconceptualizing a relationship to place in terms of newness and discovery through a Eurocentric worldview.

Therefore, this analysis understands Harvard as a settler colonial, modern/colonial institution - as a university that is structured by these logics, as "the oldest institution of higher education in the United States, established in 1636 by vote of the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony" ( Harvard itself was at the historical vanguard of settler colonialism and modernity/coloniality. The radical restructuring of historical relationships with land - that is, a colonizing project - was facilitated and designed through, at the time, the religious institution of Harvard University, of Harvard College, which originally called itself Newe College, another articulation of the paradigm of newness. 

Therefore, in this session we asked: how has Harvard shaped and been shaped by settler colonialism as a structure, not an event? How is Harvard a rearticulation of this foundational violence? That is, how does that violence show up today, as it emerges from this foundation? How is Harvard implicated in the question of how settlers seek to destroy to replace? How is Harvard implicated in the question of land, land use, as well as the transformation and renaming of land? (As Linda Tuhiwai Smith puts it in one of the suggested readings, the renaming of the land is as important as the restructuring relationship to that land.) How is Harvard rooted in the paradigm of newness? Cambridge itself, as a rearticulation of Cambridge, England, along with Newe Towne, which is its original name, and the New College – to whom are they new?


Following Patrick Wolfe’s (2006) articulation of settler colonialism as a “structure, not an event,” we traced how this structure has shaped the contours of Harvard. At the heart of settler colonialism is the desire to "destroy to replace" - to destroy that which is present on land, especially in terms of those who live in relation to particular lands. This “logic of elimination” targets those who are from that land, human and non-human, and more than human. "Destroying to replace" targets peoples, nations, community structures, watersheds, non-human animals, place-names, languages, and the ways of knowing that emerge from these places. Put another way, the “logic of elimination” seeks to expunge Indigeneity itself from the land, that is Nativeness in order to “Westernize,” that is make Western that which remains outside the imagined space/time of the West. 

In "Decolonization is Not a Metaphor," Eve Tuck and K Wayne Yang (2012) make sure that we do not have this conversation about settler colonialism without centralizing the question of land. What they call “land/water/air/subterranean earth” - land itself is a colonial introduction in terms of a site of colonial imaginary, a place where we must rethink our relationships to land in light of power. Tuck and Yang remind us that we can never talk about decolonization without talking about land "because the settlers make Indigenous land their new home and source of capital, and also because the disruption of Indigenous relationships to land represents a profound epistemic, ontological, and cosmological violence."

In thinking about settler colonialism, we talked about ontology (what does it mean to be? how do we exist?), cosmological violence (harm to/erasure of worldviews and cosmovisions), and relationships (how we understand our relations to others, the cosmos, etc.) - these are the foundations upon which we carry out our work as intellectuals, as academicians. So we must interrogate the colonial presuppositions that have been embedded in the settler colonial structure of an institution such as Harvard.

We closed by asking: What does healing look like in this context? What does reparation look like? What does reconciliation look like? How do we address these foundational violences as they remain the foundations upon which we are operating today?

We have developed resources on land acknowledgments as one way to move “into practice.”


“Westernized universities internalized from its origin the racist/sexist epistemic structures created by the four genocides/epistemicides of the 16th century. These eurocentric structures of knowledge became ‘commonsensical.’ It is considered normal functioning to have only Western males of 5 countries to be producing the canons of thought in all of the academic disciplines of the Westernized university. There is no scandal in this because they are a reflection of the normalized racist/sexist epistemic structures of knowledge of the modern/colonial world.” (Grosfoguel 2013)

Building on the work of Ramon Grosfoguel, in this seminar we problematized “the Structure of Knowledge in the Westernized University” as an internalized logic of four “genocide/epistemicides in the long 16th century.” We must develop tools to interrupt the ways in which coloniality has become “commonsensical” in academia. This entails a deeper reflection on academic “common sense,” the underlying presuppositions and assumptions of how our disciplines came to be, and how we do our work and teach at the university.

Grosfoguel asks: what does decolonizing the university look like? More broadly, we also asked: what does knowledge look like? What does learning look like? What does thinking look like? What does reading look like? All of these basic building blocks of what we do as educators, as professors, must be brought into question if we are to consider the possibilities of decolonizing knowledge and power. What do decolonized classrooms and syllabi look like, ones that take into consideration the genocide/epistemicide structured into the university? How do we build a pluri-versal, multi-vocal, and inter-epistemic syllabus, classroom, and structure? 

We also asked: How do these structures mediate our engagement and research based in university collections and archives that emerge from these historical structures of power and knowledge? One example of genocide/epistemicide at Harvard is found in recent activism in collaboration with Tamara Lanier to demand the rematriation of the Sealy daguerreotypes - pictures of Ms. Lanier's ancestors that are held in collections by Harvard. There are legal cases and active debate around who gets to access and claim stewardship of these types of images. Who makes the decisions around how collections are accessed and organized? This is just one small example in a much larger movement to decolonize museum and university collections at large.

Finally, it is important to consider how settler colonialism and genocide/epistemicide are always attempts at such projects. That is, they were not fully, nor completely, successful in exterminating Indigenous peoples of the Americas, Africa, Asia or other colonized peoples and ways of knowing. Reading for decolonial resistance and Indigenous “survivance,” we ask: how does the work of decolonizing our classrooms, syllabi, and pedagogy address and honor the ways that knowledge has survived? How do we hold up the communities and ways of knowing that have survived this process?

Into Practice: Land Acknowledgements


This activity asks each of us to write our own land acknowledgment. As teaching staff and faculty members, this exercise is meant to be a space of reflection on our own positionality and relationship to Harvard as a settler institution on Massachusett, Nipmuck, and Wampanoag lands. This is also a space to situate ourselves and our own classrooms and fields of study in a "modern/colonial matrix of power and knowledge" at large. What historical legacies and contemporary structures of settler colonialism emerge in your work at Harvard? What are some commitments you can make to interrupting these dynamics when they arise? Are there any collections, archives, field sites, data sets, etc. that you work with that are implicated in these structures? Furthermore, you are encouraged to reflect on your own personal, familial and community relationships to these places, these lands, peoples and the resources and benefits that are drawn from these colonial structures. This is meant to be one moment in a larger and longer interconnected process. Write from what these relationships look and feel like today, and return to these questions as a way to recommit to this ongoing, lifelong work of decolonization.

Land acknowledgements have been an existing part of a few different reparations projects between settler governments and the Indigenous peoples whose territories they are occupying. (Land acknowledgement is also a much older traditional practice in many Indigenous communities, although this is a different context than what we are considering here, between settler institutions and the Indigenous peoples whose lands and waters they occupy.) 

We discussed land acknowledgements as individual and collective in nature. Different people and projects have complex and dynamic relationships with colonial structures of power and knowledge. For example, we read the land acknowledgement from the Harvard University Native American Program (HUNAP), who took the time to articulate their relationships as Native scholars and Native students doing this work at Harvard, and point to the Harvard Charter and its explicit original commitment to educate Indigenous students (to “the education of English and Indian youth of this country”). The Harvard Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences articulates how their own research is implicated in questions of colonialism and science. We offer these as starting points and examples of who is already doing this work at Harvard. This then compels an invitation: if there are entities, research centers, or departments in which you have some sort of decision-making position, are you doing this work? If so, how? If not, why not? What does this work look like in your community and where you're at on campus? What could it look like?


Some resources to reference for this process (make sure to also check out the "Further Reading” and “Other Resources" tabs below): 

Land-grab universities

Are you planning to do a Land Acknowledgement?

'I regret it': Hayden King on writing Ryerson University's territorial acknowledgement

Action Required: Using a Land Acknowledgment


Existing Harvard land acknowledgments:

Harvard University Native American Program

Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences

Ash Center

Warren Center

Harvard Art Museums


A note on the Land-Grab University site:

This interactive website provides some more context for considering land acknowledgements, that is, the control of land use and resources far-beyond the boundaries of campus itself. Harvard Yard and Harvard Square are primary sites of settler colonialism in the Americas – the primordial Settler University as it were. Administratively and relationally, the Harvard Corporation is linked to so many other places and projects. And although this website doesn’t include Harvard in this way, as it is a private institution that predates the US settler nation state itself (and the primary data set is related to the 1862 Morrill Act and Land Grant Institutions), it is useful nonetheless to map the interconnectivity of the settler research university in a modern/colonial matrix of power and knowledge. Therefore we ask: what does a land acknowledgment look like that attends to this complexity, interconnection, and interrelation?

A note on

We’d like to also emphasize the disclaimer for this website: “This map does not represent or intend to represent official or legal boundaries of any Indigenous nations. To learn about definitive boundaries, contact the nations in question. Also, this map is not perfect -- it is a work in progress with tons of contributions from the community. Please send us fixes if you find errors.” This long-term, dialogical approach to land acknowledgement, with a clear commitment to the sovereignty of Indigenous nations and voices, emphasizes ongoing relationship building and reciprocity - practices that are fundamental to any genuine commitment to decolonization.

Into Practice: Decolonize your Syllabus


This activity asks us to consider: what does a decolonized syllabus look like? What kind of lessons, authors, pedagogies, or voices are we centering? What, or who, must be included, critiqued, problematized? What “structure of knowledge” does our syllabus enact?

Make a practice of documenting and gathering examples of syllabi, lesson plans, pedagogical tools, classroom activities, citations, authors, and other ways that your teaching can or already is interrupting genocide/epistemicide and the dominant structure of knowledge in the Westernized university.

Some resources to consider for this process (make sure to also check out the "Further Reading” and “Other Resources" tabs below):

It’s time to decolonize that syllabus 

Decolonizing the Curriculum download


Do Not ‘Decolonize' . . . If You Are Not Decolonizing: Progressive Language and Planning Beyond a Hollow Academic Rebranding

Further Reading

Andreotti, Vanessa de Oliveira., Stein, Sharon., Ahenakew, Cash., Hunt, Dallas. 2015. Mapping interpretations of decolonization in the context of higher education. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society. 4(1): 21-40. 

Bhambra, G., Gebrial, D., & Nişancıoğlu, K. 2018. Decolonising the university. London: Pluto Press.

Boggs, Abigail. Meyerhoff, Eli., Mitchell, Nick., Schwartz-Weinstein, Zach. 2019. Abolitionist University Studies: An Invitation. Abolition Journal

Charles, Elizabeth. 2019. Decolonizing the curriculum. Insights. 32(24): 1-7. 

DuBois. W. E. B. 1960. A Negro Student at Harvard at the End of the 19th Century. The Massachusetts Review. 1(3): 439-458. 

Grosfoguel, Ramon. 2013. The Structure of Knowledge in Westernized Universities: Epistemic racism/sexism and the four genocides/epistemicides of the long 16th century. Human Architecture, 11(1), 73- 90.

Mignolo, Walter. 2005). The idea of Latin America (Blackwell manifestos). Malden, MA ; Oxford: Blackwell Pub.

Maldonado-Torres, Nelson. 2012. The crisis of the university in the context of neoapartheid: A view from ethnic studies. Human Architecture, 10(1): 91-100.

Tuck, E., & Yang, K. W. 2012. Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, education & society, 1(1).

Rodriguez, Dylan. 2012. Racial/Colonial Genocide in the Neoliberal Academy: In Excess of a Problematic. American Quarterly. 64(4): 809-813. 

Tuhiwai Smith, Professor Linda. 2021. Decolonizing Methodologies. London: Zed Books.

Walsh, Catherine. 2014. Pedagogical Notes from the Decolonial Cracks. Emisférica 11(10) : 1-6. 

Wolfe, Patrick. 2006. Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native. Journal of Genocide Research, 8(4): 387-409.-

Other Resources


Land Acknowledgement Resources

CBC Radio. 2019. ‘I regret it’: Hayden King on writing Ryerson University’s territorial land acknowledgement. CBC Website. Accessed February 10, 2021.

Harvard. 2021. “Harvard University Native American Program, Land Acknowledgment.” Accessed February 10, 2021.

Lee, Robert & Ahtone, Tristian. 2020. “Land-grab universities”: Expropriated Indigenous land is the foundation of the land-grant university system. High Country News. Accessed February 10,2021.

Lee, Robert; Ahtone, Tristian; Pearce, Margret. 2020. “Land-Grab Universities: A High Country News Investigation. Accessed February 10, 2021.


Harvard’s Colonial Legacy

Angelo, Mauricio. 2020. Harvard’s half billion land state in Brazil marred by conflict and abuse. Mongabay. Accessed February 10, 2021.,and%20crimes%20against%20the%20environment

Drake, Jarrett Martin. 2021. "Blood at the Root," Journal of Contemporary Archival Studies: Vol. 8 , Article 6. 

Hartocollis, Anemona. 2019. Who Should Own Photos of Slaves? The Descendants, not Harvard, a Lawsuit Says. The New York Times. Accessed February 10, 2021.  

Riskin-Kutz, Oliver. 2021. “Peabody Museum Apologizes for Practices Around Native American Cultural Objects, Announces Policy Changes.” Harvard Crimson. Accessed April 1, 2021.

Uteuova, Aliya .2021. “Native American lawyer calls on Harvard to return ancestral relic.”  The Guardian. Accessed May 15, 2021.


Critiquing the University 

Gusterson, Hugh. 2017. "Homework: Toward a Critical Ethnography of the University."  American Ethnologist 44 (3):435-450. 

Harney, S., & Moten, F. 2013. The undercommons : Fugitive planning & black study. Wivenhoe ; New York ; Port Watson: Minor Compositions.


Further, etc.

References on Decolonizing Knowledge a bibliography by Marie Meudec  

Victims Remains in Inside Higher Education by Colleen Falherty

Abolition University Studies Invitation

Palestine Student Groups, Faculty Denounce Israeli Government’s Use of Force Against Palestinians in the Harvard Crimson by Zadoc Gee

Decolonizing the University in The Boston Review by Lorgia Garcia Peña

Visualizing Palestine, Visualizing Palestine 101

Exterminate All the Brutes a documentary series 

Blood Quantum a film 

Decolonize This Place - Why We Need To Decolonize the Brooklyn Museum