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Letters | 7 Ware Street

The Home Front

May-June 2021

In his installation address, President Lawrence S. Bacow said, “[W]e must strive to model the behavior we would hope to see elsewhere.” His context then was sustaining free speech on campus in the search for truth. When he invokes the phrase now, it seems broadly applicable to the ways Harvard must conduct itself, if it truly aspires to be a leading institution of higher education, at a moment when many institutions seem to be stumbling.

During the past 15 months, the University’s helmspeople have been focused on operating during a lethal pandemic. But Harvard has simultaneously undertaken many internal inquiries into its deep past and present practices: to understand itself better, and to “model the behavior” the community hopes to see take root across the wider, riven society. Totting them up may be instructive.

 

Many of these self-examinations concern aspects of race, diversity, and inclusion:

Slavery. The Radcliffe Institute, with $5 million in support from Bacow’s office, leads the “Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery” initiative (see harvardmag.com/slavery-initiative-19). Building on prior research, it aims to document past involvement with slavery across the institution, and to address the record as it pertains to the present (which some advocates suggest extends to reparations). The Peabody Museum’s separate examination produced the recent revelation that its collections include possible enslaved humans’ remains (and prompted an apology about past practices that led to extensive holdings of Native Americans’ remains and funerary objects; see harvardmag.com/human-remains-21).

Diversity and inclusion. From the president’s office throughout the schools, the University has invested in new senior officers to assure that an increasingly diverse community becomes one where all members feel they belong and have equal opportunities to realize their potential. Chief diversity and inclusion officer Sherri Ann Charleston has been unveiling a 10-year strategic plan to achieve “inclusive excellence” across Harvard.

Rethinking policing. The external review of the University police department released in December aims at changes in culture and operations, from “an open conversation on race and policing” (in Bacow’s words) to finding other means of responding to acute mental-health needs on campus (see harvardmag.com/police-review-report-20).

Revisiting visual culture. As part of her Advancing Racial Justice agenda, Faculty of Arts and Sciences dean Claudine Gay has charged a task force on visual culture and signage with reexamining how FAS has represented aspects of “a painful history, marred by exclusion and discrimination” that has been “antithetical to the inclusive scholarly community” it wishes to be. Its report, expected this spring, will articulate how to bring into alignment with FAS’s values the means by which “we memorialize individuals, events, and moments in our institutional history” while “instilling a sense of pride and belonging that is equally available to all” (see News Briefs, January-February, page 27).

Renaming. Simultaneously, president emerita Drew Gilpin Faust leads a committee elaborating principles Harvard should follow on renaming (buildings, programs, professorships) “in view of their association with historical figures whose advocacy or support of activities would today be found abhorrent by members of the Harvard community” (see harvardmag.com/renaming-committee-20). Such issues could arise about Lowell House, given President Abbott Lawrence Lowell’s racist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic views; or might do so regarding naming gifts from certain donors (see below).

Other inquiries have focused on sexual and gender-based harassment and related issues. Following the revision of policies and procedures last summer, in response to new Title IX regulations, Provost Alan Garber announced early this semester a “community-driven effort to examine how we address discrimination and harassment at Harvard.” The new University Discrimination and Bullying Policy Steering Committee and Working Groups are charged with examining sexual harassment and other misconduct; other forms of prohibited discrimination, including how complaints are investigated and resolved; and abusive or intimidating bullying (including “misconduct by individuals who hold authority over others”).

A few days later, the University released the external-review report on the sexual harassment and misconduct by former professor and vice provost for international affairs Jorge Domínguez (see page 22). In failing to take seriously complaints by then-assistant professor Terry Karl decades ago, Bacow noted, “Harvard failed her”—and allowed others to be victimized. Such probes of Harvard history (like the examinations of slavery and visual imagery) illuminate current culture and practices, and inform necessary reforms.

Finally, revelations about Jeffrey Epstein—a notorious sexual predator who also donated extensively to elite universities—led to the general counsel’s thorough airing of his gifts to Harvard, the unusual special fellowship he received, and his unwarranted access to University facilities (even after his conviction on sex charges). That report (see harvardmag.com/epstein-report-20 and see here for March 2021 disciplinary fallout) and the nationwide “Varsity Blues” admissions scandal prompted changes in gift oversight and gift policies (summarized in “Giving Guidance,” News Briefs, September-October 2020, page 20).

 

All these efforts bear on the kind of place Harvard can and should be, for students, faculty and staff, alumni, and the wider world. They represent significant priorities—whether one-off pieces of unfinished or newly discovered business, or continuing concerns requiring regular attention—imposed on any administration, including the new one of President Bacow, Dean Gay, et al.

Such efforts also represent a lot of heavy lifting during the ceaseless crises of finding ways for the institution and its people to function during the pandemic (and fending off a federal administration intent on excluding foreign students from campus; defending against a lawsuit challenging admissions policies; and dealing with divestment—see pages 24 and 23).

An unspoken, third concern—pertaining to opportunity cost—differs from these first two. At this point, it would be no surprise if members of the community, dispersed and maintaining contact via email and Zoom, have a firmer sense of Harvard’s efforts to enhance inclusiveness or combat harassment than of its intellectual agenda. Inspiring research continues: the University’s biomedical and public-health experts have responded magnificently to the pandemic’s challenge, for the global good. But absent such an acute threat, what else is pending—from the rising quantum-science initiative to new thinking in the humanities? Here, less is known.

As obligations are addressed, and COVID evolves toward some new normal, the opportunity exists to focus more directly on the core mission: the hard, intellectual work in libraries, laboratories, and classrooms that can benefit the world, and prepare citizen-leaders who have roles to play in effecting that change.

—John S. Rosenberg, Editor

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