The Community’s Conversations

Photograph of President Lawrence S. Bacow at Morning Prayers in Memorial Church
President Lawrence S. Bacow at Morning PrayersPhotograph by Rose Lincoln/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

To a striking degree, the speeches and welcoming messages to students at the beginning of the fall semester touched on a common theme: the importance of civil discourse and the centrality to the University’s mission of open debate in search of understanding and truth.

Perhaps that should not have been surprising. Pragmatically, in the current overheated, polarized environment, heading into a divisive election year, any campus incident that could be interpreted as repressing speech on ideological grounds risks becoming grist for political attacks on colleges and universities, at a time when much of the public is already skeptical about the value—and values—of higher education. Institutionally, Harvard’s leaders have historically made the case for free speech within academia, as essential to its purpose—and President Lawrence S. Bacow has done so often and forcefully, throughout his career (as reported in “The Pragmatist,” September-October 2018, page 32). And on a purely personal level, Bacow was dismayed by the rare violation of those principles when student advocates of divesting endowment investments in fossil fuels and private prisons prevented him from speaking at a scheduled Harvard Kennedy School event last April (see In a subsequent op-ed essay published in The Harvard Crimson, titled “What Kind of Community Do We Want to Be?” he decried the “heckler’s veto.”

Harvard College dean Rakesh Khurana introduced members of the class of 2023 to these community norms in a letter that noted:

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.

He then pointed the students to the faculty’s free-speech guidelines, and observed, “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.”

Welcoming those students returning to campus, Khurana nodded toward last spring:

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.

Addressing the public servants of the future, Harvard Kennedy School dean Douglas Elmendorf wrote about the serious challenges on any public agenda (gun violence, refugees from war and poverty, the environment, bigotry and persecution), and outlined the human qualities essential to addressing them:

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.

To that end, he counseled, “The right values for public leaders also include engaging in civil discourse with people with whom you disagree, even if those disagreements seem insurmountable.…I am not suggesting that you should always compromise or be morally neutral….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.”

Bacow emphasized those themes directly and personally on the formal occasions that signal the beginning of the school year. At the Freshman Convocation on September 2, he recalled the traumas of his 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 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.

The next day, at Morning Prayers in Memorial Church, Bacow was not only aspirational, but blunt, about the stakes. Reflecting on what he had learned about Harvard since becoming president, he said, “The year past brought this extraordinary place’s strengths and weaknesses into greater focus for me, 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 then asked:

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.

Bacow ended on a note of optimism about the community’s ability to bring people together (including people whose journey to Harvard from other nations is being impeded by current visa and immigration policies, the subject of a message he emailed to the community the same morning): people “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….”

By invoking “intellectual maturity” and “forbearance and generosity” in defense of effective discourse, Bacow addressed the community’s head and heart. Speaking in Memorial Church’s Appleton Chapel, where his remarks drew upon the wisdom of his own Jewish faith tradition, and cautioning against misplaced “righteousness” and “moral certitude,” he was, perhaps, also appealing to Harvard’s soul.

A report on these messages, including links to the full texts, appears at

Read more articles by John S. Rosenberg

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