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Letters | THE VIEW FROM MASS HALL

Resolve

March-April 2021

Portrait photograph of Harvard president Lawrence S. Bacow

Lawrence S. Bacow


Lawrence S. Bacow

I have responded to many outpourings of disappointment and anger during my time in higher education, but the reaction to the events of January 6 was exceptional. Spurred by an attack on the legitimacy of our electoral process and a disgraceful act of insurrection in our Capitol, demands rolled in from the Harvard community and beyond to bar speakers, to prevent appointments within our Schools, and to revoke degrees previously granted. Some faculty, students, and staff, as well as some alumni and others, urged that the University distance itself from members of Congress and other public officials who knowingly sowed and spread misinformation and disinformation to the detriment of our democracy.

Like many people around the world, I was shocked and disgusted by what I saw unfold on television that day. Inaugural poet Amanda Gorman, Harvard College Class of 2020, restored a bit of my faith two weeks later when she urged all Americans to seek light “in this never-ending shade.” Veritas illuminates our work. We take it seriously, and anyone invited into our community—for an afternoon, an academic year, or any other length of time—should be committed to this principle. We honor our past, enrich our present, and secure our future by holding fast to practices and principles that have served us well throughout our history, especially in fraught times. To those who have written me, I have noted that:

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. The opportunity for disagreement and debate is a learning opportunity.

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 and extenuating 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.

These answers have done little to persuade my correspondents, but 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 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 rather 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.

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