Centered on Community

With natural disaster (Hurricane Harvey) and cultural confrontation (in Charlottesville and elsewhere) occupying the national conversation, Harvard leaders chose to focus on this community’s purposes and values as they welcomed the College class of 2021 and the new academic year.

Speaking at Freshman Convocation on August 29, President Drew Faust drew on a favorite anecdote (“It was on this annual occasion of welcoming the incoming College class that a former dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the late Jeremy Knowles, described what he saw as the most important goal of higher education. It was, he said, to ensure that graduates can recognize when someone is talking rot”) to draw some lessons for the new circumstances. “In recent weeks we’ve seen threats of global nuclear war, frightening examples of extreme weather, devastating acts of terrorism…and chilling instances of hatred, racism, anti-Semitism, and violence at an American college town not so different from this one,” she said. “What should a university education be at such a moment?” She answered by outlining Harvard as an engine for learning through engaging with difference:

[W]e have asked all of you to uproot your lives, move to Massachusetts with carloads filled with paraphernalia and teary-eyed families forced to bid you goodbye. Why do we do this? We do it because we believe in the power of community as an essential educational force. But that community must be constituted so that it does not simply present you with what you already know….It is its diversity, its elements of unfamiliarity and difference that render Harvard College the extraordinary experience that I know you will find it to be.

Underscoring the point, College dean Rakesh Khurana described the class as “the most diverse in Harvard’s history.”

The next day, speaking at Morning Prayers to open the academic year (her last time doing so as president), Faust was pointed about Harvard’s qualities (“our diversity offers us the strongest possible foundation for our strength”) and the dismaying forces loosed in the larger society. Referring to Charlottesville, she said, “[W]e have seen loathsome demonstrations of hatred and violence, reviving the most shameful episodes of the past and foregrounding the very worst of what we have been and regrettably still are as a nation.” (She grew up in the Virginia riven by Brown v. Board of Education and its tumultuous aftermath.) In the August disturbance, she said, “I saw white supremacy resurgent, setting its sights on a university town with values like our own to mount its challenge and advance its evil and its cruelty.”

Against “a world where people are categorically excluded, where minds are closed or overtly hostile to differences of perspective or experience or identity, where violence and threats replace rational discourse and exchange,” she exhorted Harvard to be otherwise:

We must condemn the racism that feels free to speak in a way it hasn’t for nearly half a century. We must denounce the Nazism and anti-Semitism that my father and so many others of his generation risked their lives to defeat. We must affirm the full citizenship of LGBTQ Americans, including their right to qualify for military service.

Education, Faust emphasized, “serves as the arteries of a just society.”

Full accounts appear at and

Read more articles by: Sophia Nguyen or Marina N. Bolotnikova

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