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Universities in a Polarized Era

2.2.21

Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow

President Lawrence S. Bacow


President Lawrence S. Bacow

Speaking at the first Faculty of Arts and Sciences meeting of the new semester this afternoon, President Lawrence S. Bacow addressed the polarization of American politics—including the assault on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, and fierce criticism of the Harvard Kennedy School’s decision to remove U.S. Representative Elise Stefanik ’06 (R-N.Y.) from membership on an advisory committee—and his hope for “less turbulent” conditions for universities’ work in the future. He also strongly reiterated Harvard’s commitment to free speech and spelled out the expectations concerning appearances on campus (for historical examples of controversial speakers, see here); appointments to named lectureships and similar positions of honor; appointments to advisory boards (which come “with the expectation that all members will uphold and advance the mission of the body they serve”); and the meaning of a Harvard degree (which is “not conferred on the condition of future good behavior”).

Because this is breaking news—and an unusual, and unusually extended—statement by the president at a fraught moment, Harvard Magazine reproduces his complete remarks here, as prepared for delivery, as a service to readers.

Remarks of President Bacow

This is the first meeting of the faculty since the New Year, since the violent assault on the Capitol, and since the historic inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris. 

I’d like to take just a few moments to reflect on these events and the role of Harvard, and other research universities, as we look ahead. 

The events of January 6 represented a shameful moment in our nation’s history. In the hours after the insurrection in Washington, I called for people of every political persuasion to denounce the lies, lawlessness, and violence that brought our nation to the brink of constitutional crisis. And I condemned ignorance and hatred, abhorrent to all of us as members of a university community dedicated to truth, learning, research, debate, and service. 

But if the events of January 6 caused us to fear for the future, surely the events of January 20 also gave us hope that we may chart a path forward toward a more just and more equitable future for the United States. 

Already, we have seen the new administration take action to reverse an arbitrary and cruel travel ban on individuals from predominantly Muslim countries. There is new hope for recipients of DACA—including many members of the Harvard community—that a path to citizenship is within reach. The importance of science as the basis for truth and for policy-making has been reaffirmed, and Eric Lander, leader of Harvard and MIT’s Broad Institute, has been named President Biden’s science adviser—the position elevated to the cabinet for the first time in history. Steps toward racial justice and equity are now policy priorities of our national leaders. Important steps for a nation, as Amanda Gorman of the College Class of 2020 said on the steps of the Capitol, that is “far from polished, far from pristine,” not “striving to form a union that is perfect,” but “to forge a union with purpose.” 

As an institution, we will continue to raise our voice in the halls of Congress and with the new administration on these issues and more that relate to Harvard’s important teaching and research mission. And ours will not be the only voice. We will continue to work closely with our peers across higher education to advance our shared goals. 

Too often over the past four years, institutions of higher education were used as proxies in a culture war designed to divide the nation along ideological lines: Our admissions processes attacked to undermine the benefits of diversity and used as a wedge to divide communities on our campus and on others. Tax policy used as a cudgel to “punish” institutions portrayed by some as “elite” and “out of touch.” Visa and immigration policies that hurt students and scholars, developed to underpin an approach that closed doors, excluded talent, and made the U.S. less competitive in the world

I hope we are entering a less turbulent period for institutions of higher education—a period in which we can focus on fulfilling the promise of progress and discovery that truly emanates from Harvard and from all of higher education. We exist to educate the next generation of leaders, to create new knowledge, to advance discovery and continue the relentless pursuit of truth that can illuminate a path forward for the world. We pursue this mission on the foundation of a set of values, chief among them free speech and academic freedom. We pursue this mission with the belief that diversity in every dimension deepens our understanding and moves us closer to truth. That facts and truth matter.

I have kept these principles in mind in recent days as media and others have attacked the University for the decision to remove Congresswoman Elise Stefanik from her position as a member of the Senior Advisory Committee of the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School. Let me put on the record just a few facts on this situation. I was consulted by Dean Doug Elmendorf and fully supported his decision, which was based neither on ideology nor on the Kennedy School’s orientation toward conservative viewpoints. Indeed, the Senior Advisory Committee has always been and will always be bipartisan. Rather, as Dean Elmendorf clearly stated, the basis for his decision was Congresswoman Stefanik’s repeated assertions of claims that had been proven inaccurate by independent election bodies and had been rejected by courts across the country. These unfounded assertions helped to undermine the electoral process. This made the Congresswoman’s position as an adviser to an organization dedicated to promoting undergraduate engagement with that same electoral process untenable. 

Many people—from the Harvard community and beyond—have written me to decry the decision to remove Congresswoman Stefanik, and I have defended the Kennedy School—and the University—by sharing these facts. At the same time, I have been receiving demands from some faculty, students, and staff, as well as some alumni and others, to bar speakers, to prevent appointments within our Schools, and to revoke degrees previously granted. I have been urged to distance this institution from members of Congress and other public officials who served in the prior administration or spread misinformation and disinformation to the detriment of our democracy. 

Let me be clear: I was shocked and disgusted by the attack on the Capitol. It was an affront to the legitimacy of our electoral process and a disgraceful act of insurrection. But I also believe that it is our responsibility—especially in moments such as these—to hold fast to practices and principles that have served us well throughout our history—to hold fast to our motto, Veritas. 

So let me be clear about these practices and principles: 

  • An invitation to speak at Harvard is not an endorsement of the speaker or their ideas—quite the opposite. Anyone who speaks on our campus must answer questions and is expected to engage in the kind of civil dialogue we hope to see in the wider world. 
  • An appointment to a position of honor such as a named lectureship or prestigious fellowship requires greater consideration. Those responsible for such appointments should be prepared to defend why an individual is worthy of recognition. 
  • An appointment to an advisory board comes with the expectation that all members will uphold and advance the mission of the body they serve. If that becomes impossible, it is the right of the University to request that an individual seek an opportunity better aligned with their values or, in rare circumstances, to revoke positions. 
  • A Harvard degree is not conferred on the condition of future good behavior. We should expect that our alumni will be as intellectually rigorous in their careers as they were in their studies. Those who fail to meet this standard will be judged in the court of public opinion, not by Harvard. 

Truth must be tested on the anvil of opposing explanations and ideas. Visits to Harvard by Shinzo Abe, Yasser Arafat, Fidel Castro, Newt Gingrich, Alan Greenspan, and Álvaro Uribe Vélez provoked righteous indignation from across the political spectrum. In 1997, some 5,000 people gathered near Sanders Theatre to protest a visit by Jiang Zemin, a crowd size not seen at Harvard since the Vietnam War. These moments in the history of the University are not displays of acquiescence but evidence of our commitment to prompt both thought and action. We must preserve the ability of faculty and students to extend invitations with the expectation that they will explain and defend their choices as need arises. Our goal—our expectation—should always be engagement. 

Like colleges and universities across the country, Harvard is a place of many voices. One of the most important—and most difficult—of our tasks is to ensure that all members of our community feel empowered to speak their minds freely, to listen to others generously, and to expand their thinking regularly. We are better served by sharpening our arguments and strengthening our resolve than by distancing ourselves from those with whom we disagree. History teaches us the dangers of campus bans and litmus tests based on ideology. The defense of free and honest inquiry in the unfettered pursuit of truth is our shared responsibility—and among our most sacred commitments. 

There is much work to be done in the years ahead for our nation—to reassert the value of truth and the necessity of mutual respect, to heal and come together, to make progress as a country. The work of this institution can help advance those efforts, and I look forward to working with all of you to do so.

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Photograph Commencement procession into Harvard Yard Tercentenary Theatre

At last, an opportunity for the coronavirus-affected classes to proceed into Tercentenary Theatre and partake of the festival rites

Photograph by Jennifer Beaumont/Harvard Magazine

Celebrating the Classes of ’20 and ’21

Photograph of University Hall, Faculty of Arts and Sciences headquarters

University Hall, home to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences leadership

Photograph by Niko Yaitanes/Harvard Magazine

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