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Reasoned Debate, Free Speech, and Service

9.3.19

Photo of Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow delivering Morning Prayers address.

President Lawrence S. Bacow speaks at Morning Prayers in Appleton Chapel.
Photograph by Rose Lincoln/Harvard Public Affairs and Communication


President Lawrence S. Bacow speaks at Morning Prayers in Appleton Chapel.
Photograph by Rose Lincoln/Harvard Public Affairs and Communication

President Lawrence S. Bacow, speaking at Morning Prayers in Memorial Church this morning at the start of the new academic year, expressed concern about the community’s commitment to civil discourse at a contentious time in the larger society. “I have learned much about Harvard since I last delivered Morning Prayers a year ago,” he told those attending. “Before my selection was announced, I felt confident that I understood parts of this University quite well after having been a student here, having been a teacher here, and having been a Corporation member here, but there is nothing like being president to get to know the institution well.

“The year past brought this extraordinary place’s strengths and weaknesses into greater focus for me,” he continued, “and I wanted to share with you today an area in which I think we are at risk of failing one another—and failing this University to which all of us belong.” He did so by referring to the wisdom of a famous leader from his own religious tradition:

There is a story that is told about the great Rabbi Hillel for whom the organization on our campus and on many other campuses is named. He was confronted by a skeptic who demanded that Rabbi Hillel teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot. His response? “What is hateful to you, do not do unto others. The rest is commentary.”

How can we profess to be seekers of Veritas, seekers of truth, if we shame and shun those who disagree with us? How can we urge forbearance and generosity in others if we are unwilling to practice it ourselves? How can we have any hope for the wider world if we cannot model in our community the reasoned debate and discourse we wish to see elsewhere?

Yes, the issues we are confronting today—as a University, as a nation, and as a planet—need our urgent attention. Yes, they are deserving of our thoughtful consideration. Yes, they are worthy of impassioned argument. But we cannot allow them to create in each of us a righteousness that abhors concession and compromise. When we succumb to the lure of moral certitude, when we stifle disagreement in our community by ignoring and ostracizing dissenters, we lose our ability to make meaningful change.

In the year ahead, there will be many opportunities for our community to rise to the challenge of turning individual commentary into collective action, personal conviction into public statement. Fortunately, the weakness I just described is still outpaced by one of our great strengths: Bringing people together, as we are here today, who care deeply about the search for truth—and who want to sincerely improve our world. May we all see one another in that light as we embark on this important journey once again, and may we all remember the important words of Rabbi Hillel.

Thank you.

Speaking to the freshman class at their convocation yesterday, Bacow broached similar themes. He recalled the traumas of his own freshman year, at MIT, in 1969, during the national convulsions over the Vietnam War and urban unrest. In that context, he urged the newest members of the Harvard community both to work to improve society and the world, and to do so in an intellectually open spirit: “The more you learn, the more you see, the more you understand what needs to change,” he said. “Harvard is not perfect. Massachusetts is not perfect. This country is not perfect, and neither is the world in which we live.” No one—“liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican”—would disagree with that sentiment, he continued. “It’s necessary for all of us to stand up and speak for the causes in which we believe.” Bacow also said that in learning about and improving both themselves and the world, students need to hold onto one of Harvard’s most important traditions: “intellectual maturity”—the willingness to adjust beliefs in the face of new information or a better argument. 

This morning’s address was Bacow’s second late-summer, beginning-of-term appearance; last year, in a spiritual tenor, he urged members of the community to make space in their busy lives to rest, reflect, and set a course toward “be[ing] our best selves”:

I’ve always found it interesting that all three of the Abrahamic religions embrace the notion of a Sabbath—a day of rest—and that the Eastern religions also each incorporate daily time for contemplation, reflection, and renewal. My wife, Adele, and I are Jewish. And, when we’re in town, we try to make a point of attending Shabbat services on Saturday morning at our synagogue, and we join that congregation in what is known as the sanctuary, as we all gather to acknowledge that we are removing ourselves from our daily routine to seek community and to discover peace.

As we gather today in this sacred space at the heart of our campus, I hope each of us is reminded of the importance of pausing to consider life not in retrospect, or in prospect, but as it is actually being lived. We each have many roles and responsibilities to the world and to others. And we must commit ourselves to the task of thinking continuously about how we can be our best selves and how we can enable others to do the same—on this, our very first day together, and on every day to come.

The president no doubt was reminding himself to create such space personally, in what shaped up as a busy first year in office, conducted at the brisk, even hectic, pace that is a prevailing point of pride among many Harvardians, young and older.

This year, the tenor of the times made the president’s message seem more topical—and urgent. It was also personal: last April, Bacow was prevented from speaking on campus by divestment protestors. In a Harvard Crimson opinion column on the event, titled, “What Kind of Community Do We Want to Be?” he declared, “The heckler’s veto has no place at Harvard.”

As Bacow spoke for the second time as president, Stephanie Paulsell, Swartz professor of the practice of Christian studies, made her Morning Prayers debut as the interim Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, following the departure of the Reverend Jonathan L. Walton. Paulsell’s appointment was announced on August 20.

As the service was conducted, members of the community received an email welcome message from Bacow, pertaining to another worldly concern intruding on the academy: whether the United States would remain open to visitors from around the world coming to study and learn at universities like Harvard. (The Crimson reported that an entering freshman who had been denied admission to the country has now arrived on campus; read the full text of the president’s message here.) Bacow quoted a precedessor, Nathan Pusey, writing in 1957:

In the complex and confused world in which we all find ourselves, it is possible to think of Harvard as a kind of island of light in a very widespread darkness, and I must confess I sometimes do just this. But I also know that the figure is not really an apt one, for Harvard has never been an island severed from the broad concerns of men and is certainly not one now. Instead, it is rather intimately involved in the complex culture to which it belongs. Its distinction is that [here] intellectual activity has an opportunity to come into sharper focus, and so becomes richer, more vivid, more convincing, and more captivating than in society at large.

It is because Harvard cannot and must not be an island, Bacow wrote, that “As our policy makers fulfill their necessary obligation to weigh issues of national security, I profoundly hope they will do so with full recognition of the ways that our country’s universities greatly benefit from the presence and participation of talented people from around the world, and the ways that U.S. national interests are served by a system of higher education whose strength rests on a willingness to transcend barriers, not erect them.”

Writing in a personal vein, he continued (making the case again for discourse within the University):

Not just as a university president, but as the son of refugees and as a citizen who deeply believes in the American dream, I am disheartened by aspects of the proposed new criteria for people seeking to enter our country. They privilege those who are already educated, who already speak English, and who already have demonstrable skills. They fail to recognize others who yearn for a better future and who are willing to sacrifice and work hard to achieve it. Had these same rules been in place when my parents each immigrated, I doubt they would have been admitted, and I would not be writing this message today.
 
My parents, like most immigrants, loved this country in part because they had the experience of growing up someplace else. They appreciated its aspirations of freedom and opportunity for all, and never took these ideals for granted. But they were also not uncritical of their new home. They wanted it to be the very best place it could be, a goal to which we all should aspire. Indeed, it is the role of great universities to foster an environment that encourages loving criticism of our country and our world. Through our scholarship and education, through our encouragement of free inquiry and debate, we ask not just why things are as they are, but how they might be better. To be a patriot is also to be a critic and not to accept the status quo as inevitable.

Conversation and Civility in the College: “We Can Light a Path Forward”

Beyond the “sacred space at the heart of our campus,” deans conveyed similar messages to arriving students that went far beyond the anodyne rhetoric that sometimes afflicts such notes, appropriately reflecting some of the same concerns and tensions now prevalent in the wider society that animated Bacow’s remarks.


Rakesh Khurana
Photograph courtesy of Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

Harvard College dean Rakesh Khurana took special care, in his welcome letters to the class of 2023 and to returning upperclassmen, to emphasize the value at the heart of the academy: the commitment to open, receptive discourse. He devoted two-thirds of his letter to freshmen to these matters:

At Harvard, you will be joining a lively intellectual community where debate is an important part of learning. Hearing each other’s points of view, having our own assumptions challenged, and interrogating our own values are experiences central to Harvard’s liberal arts and sciences education. When we gather to address difficult questions, we may disagree, and we may encounter ideas that make us uncomfortable. The temptation to drown out those ideas can be strong. At the same time, we need to be open to different ways of knowing and understanding, and to the possibility that our perspective will change when we encounter new evidence and better arguments. And we must remember that even in difficult moments, we are deserving of each other’s respect and compassion.     

With that in mind, I want to bring to your attention the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences guidelines on free speech, which I think provide a useful framework for thinking about how we exchange ideas on this campus. These guidelines acknowledge the tension between maintaining a civil and respectful campus and remaining open to a wide range of views, and discuss both individual rights and responsibilities in our context. Allowing someone to speak does not mean we condone what they are saying, and it does not absolve that person or group from consequences. At the same time, we all share the responsibility for creating a community in which we interact with respect, integrity, and compassion—and with an openness to the possibility of changing our minds. As you prepare to join our diverse community, I ask you to remember these values. 

Following a year in which student passion about divestment of endowment investments in fossil-fuel and for-profit prison enterprises spilled over into the incident where the president was prevented from speaking, Khurana devoted even more of his “welcome home” message to returning students to upholding the community’s standards for unhampered speech and discourse:

I’ve been reflecting on the issues that captured our attention last year, both here at Harvard and beyond our gates. In particular I’ve been thinking about how we can advocate for change, both on-campus and more broadly, in a world where common ground so often seems elusive. 

Last year at Harvard we saw robust debate about a variety of issues, which we appreciate at an institution committed to pursuing knowledge and educating global citizens. When we gather to address difficult questions, we will often disagree. While I am proud that so many of you fiercely advocate for your beliefs, I am also concerned that sometimes on this campus we see those with differing opinions as undeserving of our attention, our respect, or our compassion. Hearing each other’s points of view, having our own assumptions challenged, and interrogating our values are experiences central to Harvard’s liberal arts and sciences education.
    
As scholars and citizens, we must be open to different ways of understanding, critical self-reflection, and to changing our perspectives when new evidence and better arguments appear. The temptation to drown out ideas that make us uncomfortable can be strong. I have found the framework in the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences guidelines on free speech helpful because they acknowledge the tension between maintaining a civil and respectful campus and remaining open to a wide range of views, and discuss both individual rights and responsibilities in our context. Especially during this challenging moment in history, we need to be vigilant in ensuring no one is prevented from speaking or expressing any idea. Letting someone speak does not mean we condone what they are saying, and it does not absolve that person or group from consequences. And when we disagree, we have an obligation to respond earnestly. At the same time, we share the responsibility for making Harvard a community in which we interact with respect, integrity, and compassion. 

As we begin this new academic year, I hope you will think about what kinds of interactions will help us continue to carve out a community that we’d like to live in, both here at Harvard and beyond. If we can find it in ourselves to engage with those we disagree with, and to care for others even when their beliefs may not be our own, we can light a path forward.

Beyond the high stakes within Harvard, Khurana’s observation that “Especially during this challenging moment in history, we need to be vigilant in ensuring no one is prevented from speaking or expressing any idea” reflects an external reality as well. In an already overheated political environment, heading into a divisive election campaign, any perceived constraints on speech or expression at Harvard for ideological reasons (broadly defined) are likely to become grist for partisan skirmishing and social-media warfare in the world beyond—to the benefit of neither universities like this one, nor the wider society.

Schooling for Public Service: “Profound Challenges to Safety, Freedom, and Prosperity”

Harvard Kennedy School dean Douglas Elmendorf, addressing students whose devotion to public service puts them at the epicenter of social tensions and disruptions of the norms of governance, was at pains to spell out his school’s commitment to diverse people and perspectives; devotion to a high calling; and grounding in values and skills—even, or especially, when they are most directly challenged. (Elmendorf was the host of the event at which Bacow was prevented from speaking last April, and of course his school enrolls students devoted to engagement with public life.)


Douglas Elemendorf
Photograph courtesy of Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

On diversity and unity of purpose, Elmendorf built upon familiar tropes about inclusion, in a personal way:

I also want to offer a special welcome to anyone who is wondering whether you truly belong here, perhaps because Harvard’s status as an elite institution can be intimidating or because your race or ethnicity or ideological views or other identities put you in a minority among your classmates. Let me emphasize: You do belong here, because the diversity of backgrounds and perspectives at the Kennedy School is one of our great and enduring strengths. For most of my life, I have been part of organizations in which the dominant voices have been people who are like me in many ways. I realize that my colleagues with different characteristics or backgrounds often have had more challenging experiences as a result. Here at the Kennedy School, we all need to be focused—the dean, the students, the faculty, and the staff—on making this community as welcoming as possible to everyone. As we continue working to create a more diverse and inclusive environment at the Kennedy School, we will become an even stronger force for good in the world.

I have talked so far about our individual stories and some of our potential differences. But the real theme of my remarks today is what unites us. We are united by our commitment to advancing the public interest—to improving public policy and public leadership so people can be safer, freer, and more prosperous. That is why we admitted you and why you chose to come.

He was frank about current challenges:

As we look across this country and around the world today, we can see profound challenges to safety, freedom, and prosperity. We mourn the many people in this country and elsewhere who have died from gun violence; we are deeply distressed about the millions of people around the world who have had to leave their homes because of wars or economic crises; we are greatly concerned about the degradation of the natural world; we are profoundly troubled about people who are suffering from hatred or bigotry or persecution. These and many other challenges sometimes keep me awake at night, and maybe they do that for you too.

But we have come together in a place where, in the words of an old expression, we can light a candle and not just curse the darkness. Indeed, at the Kennedy School, we are lighting candles to dispel darkness in so many ways. 

And then he charged those coming to learn together at the school to be clear about the importance of upholding the values and developing the skills essential to lives of effective public service:

Let me be more specific now about what I hope you will learn while you are here. I hope you will both hone your values and strengthen your analytical and practical skills, because you will need both the right values and the right skills to solve public problems.

The right values for public leaders like us begin with a commitment to serving others rather than serving ourselves. That means being trustworthy—meeting high standards of honesty and integrity, in what we say and what we do. It means serving all others and not just people who are like us in their demographic characteristics or ideological views. So, public leaders should not promote division, but should build connection; they should not inflame hostility and encourage violence against people who are different in some way, but should instill understanding and encourage respect of others. Indeed, our alumnus Juan Manuel Santos, the former president of Colombia and Nobel Peace Prize winner, said in his remarks at our graduation last year that the most important value for any public leader is empathy—the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. 

The right values for public leaders also include engaging in civil discourse with people with whom you disagree, even if those disagreements seem insurmountable. Eleanor Roosevelt once said: “It is not only important, but mentally invigorating, to discuss political matters with people whose opinions differ radically from one’s own….This can be an invaluable check on your own ideas.” I am not suggesting that you should always compromise or be morally neutral, and Eleanor Roosevelt was not suggesting that either. On the contrary, I believe that public leaders should make moral judgments. But I am suggesting that you should be open to the possibility that different judgments from yours have value as well. One day this summer when I was running at Fresh Pond with my wife and our dog, another car in the parking lot had a bumper sticker that said “Don’t believe everything you think.” That is good advice: Don’t believe everything you think.

Let me make one more point about values. I think that public leaders like us should not only hold ourselves accountable for meeting certain standards but should hold other public leaders accountable as well. To be sure, no leader is perfect, and the world presents many tradeoffs, so when public leaders violate our standards, deciding how to respond can be challenging. In addition, some people occupy positions in which speaking directly about other public leaders is not appropriate. But whenever a public leader violates our standards and we are inclined to avert our eyes, we should at least stop and think twice. 

As I said a few minutes ago, solving public problems requires not only the right values but also the right skills. The history of governance is littered with examples of good intentions producing bad outcomes because public leaders who were trying to accomplish a worthy goal did not know how to achieve it. In my own years in public service, I watched over and over as people with a passion for solving public problems failed to do so because they did not have the needed skills.

Some of those skills involve factual knowledge and rigorous analysis: Logic, data, institutional detail, and historical experience are crucial because introspection and intuition do not provide sufficient understanding of our complex world, let alone of how to change it. Other needed skills involve management and administration, because most public officials spend their careers in large and complex organizations. Effective leaders also need skills such as communication, decision-making, and negotiation, in order to understand people and move them forward. And still other needed skills are more personal—the skills of self-understanding and self-discipline.

Certainly both deans would agree with the president’s formulation: “When we succumb to the lure of moral certitude, when we stifle disagreement in our community by ignoring and ostracizing dissenters, we lose our ability to make meaningful change.”

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