“An Extraordinarily Painful and Disorienting Time for Harvard”

Interim President Alan Garber’s community message

Interim President Alan Garber | PHOTOGRAPH BY KRIS SNIBBE/HARVARD UNIVERSITY

In an email message to the community, Alan M. Garber, who became interim president a week ago upon the resignation of President Claudine Gay, began by acknowledging “an extraordinarily painful and disorienting time” for the University. Since arriving as an undergraduate in 1973, he wrote, “I cannot recall a period of comparable tension on our campus and across our community.” He cited “concerns about how we address and combat antisemitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of bias; safeguard free expression; and foster a climate of mutual understanding.” Pointing to some of the attacks on the University and its leadership, he said, “We have been subjected to an unrelenting focus on fault lines that divide us, which has tested the ties that bind us as a community devoted to learning from one another.”

Addressing the abrupt end of Gay’s tenure just six months after she became president, Garber wrote of “a deep sense of loss” and continued, “I have come to know and admire her leadership through her service as a divisional dean, dean, and president, and, along with countless others, I had great hopes for her presidency.”

He appealed to members of the community (who obviously include faculty, staff, students, and alumni worldwide—most of them bystanders to and observers of the traumas on campus and far beyond since the October 7th Hamas terrorist attack on Israel, rather than active participants in the debates and criticisms): 

I hope that we will all reflect upon the qualities that make this institution so remarkable: our commitment to attracting and supporting faculty, students, and staff of outstanding talent and promise; our determination to lead in educating students and advancing knowledge across an extraordinary array of scholarly disciplines and professional domains; and our aspirations to generate ideas and innovations that can serve the wider society and change the world for the better.

Importantly, in calling for focus on Harvard’s academic mission of discovery and education (“It’s crucial that…through our words and deeds, [we] affirm the immense worth of what we do here”), he also noted “shortcomings.” To that end, he outlined the stakes, and appealed to those involved with Harvard to commit to its mission and one another: “Seeking ways to learn from our differences has never mattered more. Rededicating ourselves to free inquiry and expression, in a climate of inclusion and a spirit of mutual respect, has never mattered more. Upholding a paramount commitment to academic excellence has never mattered more. Pursuing the truth has never mattered more.”

The full text of Garber’s message appears at the bottom of this post.

His nod to shortcomings is striking. It arrives at a time when the present crises may be stimulating broader thinking about universities’ status and performance in the current social and political context. Coincidentally, President emeritus Derek C. Bok, who has been among the foremost analysts and constructive critics of higher education in recent decades, has just completed his newest book, Attacking the Elites: What Critics Get Wrong—and Right—about America’s Leading Universities(Yale University Press, scheduled publication February 27). In an essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education published last week reflecting on recent events and drawing upon the book, Bok probed “Why Americans Love to Hate Harvard.”There, he emphasized elite universities’ foundational contributions to society, but also outlined growing public disenchantment with these and other institutions. He pointed to increasing incursions on schools’ basic academic prerogatives (to determine who teaches, what they teach, how they teach, and whom they admit to study). And he sketched increasingly sharp critiques of certain admissions practices and, importantly, of “the predominance of liberal and liberal-leaning professors, especially in social-science and humanities departments,” to the extent that “there is an important body of conservative thought that is now nearly or completely absent on the faculties of many eminent universities.” He called the latter a problem that is “especially difficult to correct” (although he suggests ways of doing so that do not impinge on universities’ essential, “rigorous standards for making faculty appointments”). That trend probably has a lot to do with the increasing polarization of attitudes about higher education along partisan lines, and the hostility that Harvard and peer institutions now face.

Garber and the Harvard Corporation have an immediate agenda, to assure that the University has interim leadership in place. But larger debates are clearly stirring as well.

Interim President Alan Garber’s message:

Dear Members of the Harvard Community,

We have been through an extraordinarily painful and disorienting time for Harvard. Since I first arrived here as an undergraduate in 1973, I cannot recall a period of comparable tension on our campus and across our community. That tension has been exacerbated by concerns about how we address and combat antisemitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of bias; safeguard free expression; and foster a climate of mutual understanding. We have been subjected to an unrelenting focus on fault lines that divide us, which has tested the ties that bind us as a community devoted to learning from one another.

President Gay’s resignation last week has added a deep sense of loss. Claudine and I have worked together closely these past eight years. I have come to know and admire her leadership through her service as a divisional dean, dean, and president, and, along with countless others, I had great hopes for her presidency. I share her unshakable confidence in our community and in what we can accomplish when we commit ourselves, above all, to pursuing excellence.

As this new year begins, I hope that we will all reflect upon the qualities that make this institution so remarkable: our commitment to attracting and supporting faculty, students, and staff of outstanding talent and promise; our determination to lead in educating students and advancing knowledge across an extraordinary array of scholarly disciplines and professional domains; and our aspirations to generate ideas and innovations that can serve the wider society and change the world for the better. It’s crucial that we bridge the fissures that have weakened our sense of community and, through our words and deeds, affirm the immense worth of what we do here, notwithstanding our shortcomings. Doing so will not be easy, especially in the face of persistent scrutiny, but we must rise to the challenge. It will take a willingness to approach each other in a spirit of goodwill, with an eagerness to listen as well as to speak, and with an appreciation of our common humanity when we encounter passionately held but opposing convictions.

Whatever our individual views on contested issues, whatever our varied experiences and backgrounds, whatever part of Harvard we inhabit, we share an enormous stake in the learning undertaken here, in the ideas nurtured here, and in the discoveries shaped here that improve lives far beyond our campus. Seeking ways to learn from our differences has never mattered more. Rededicating ourselves to free inquiry and expression, in a climate of inclusion and a spirit of mutual respect, has never mattered more. Upholding a paramount commitment to academic excellence has never mattered more. Pursuing the truth has never mattered more.

Our task is difficult yet essential, and we have much work ahead of us. Although I regret the circumstances that have me writing to you as your interim president, please know that I will serve with a dedication to the Harvard I know and cherish: a university with a boundless ambition to advance knowledge and with the humility to learn from its shortcomings as well as its successes. I’m grateful for your help in our efforts and wish all of you the best for the year ahead.

Sincerely,
Alan M. Garber

Read more articles by: John S. Rosenberg

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