Harvard Alumni Day with Courtney B. Vance

Protest interruptions and a call to do “the right thing” 

Man wearing red Harvard baseball cap addresses audience form podium

Courtney B. Vance | Photograph by Jim Harrison

Two sets of protestors briefly interrupted interim president Alan M. Garber’s remarks during the Alumni Day celebration on Friday, May 31, as he and other speakers acknowledged Harvard’s divisions and difficult year and emphasized the importance of community-building and what Garber called “generous listening.” In a powerful call to action, actor and writer Courtney B. Vance ’82 challenged everyone in the audience to live up to their own ideals by doing what they know to be right.

man in brown suit stands at the podium
HAA President Tracy “Ty” Moore II ’06   |   Photograph by Jim harrison

After alumni paraded into Tercentenary Theatre behind a bagpiper, the 154th meeting of the Harvard Alumni Association (HAA) was gaveled into order by HAA president, Tracy “Ty” Moore II ’06. “Wow, what a year,” he began. Then, adapting a line from Robert Frost, he added that, for him, “One major takeaway” from the fractiousness of the past several months, is: “The only way through is with. To move through all the polarizing headlines and challenges before us, we must work with one another, to stay connected, engaged, and invested in our Harvard community, especially when we disagree.”

Moore also introduced several people from the stage, including HAA executive director Sarah Karmon (Garber’s former chief of staff during his tenure as provost) and HAA president-elect Moitri Chowdhury Savard ’93, whose one-year term begins in July. Moore also gave a shoutout to four of Harvard’s oldest alumni, who were sitting in the front row of the audience: Linda Black ’51; George Post ’45; and, celebrating their 80th reunion (“That’s eight-zero,” Moore emphasized), Bert Huberman ’44, M.B.A. ’48, and Henry Ashworth ’44.

 

Man in top hat and suit with arms spread wide
Baratunde Thurston ’99   |   Photograph by Jim Harrison

Moore also introduced, to sustained cheers and applause, Baratunde Thurston ’99, who was elected chief marshal by his twenty-fifth reunion classmates. A writer, comedian, Emmy-nominated commentator, and cultural critic (and, once upon a time, a philosophy concentrator), Thurstson hosts PBS’s America Outdoors with Baratunde Thurston.

Then Moore turned the podium over to Garber.

 

Alan Garber speaks to audience from podium
Alan M. Garber   |   Photograph by Jim harrison

“To Champion Decency, Empathy, and Integrity”

But before Garber had a chance to begin speaking, a woman wearing a black suit swiftly approached him on the stage and emptied a cannister of green glitter on his head. “For the baby monkeys!” she shouted. “For the animals in the lab! Harvard, shut down the baby monkey labs now.” In a year of protests and heightened security, that she reached the president on stage without being deterred was an especially unsettling moment.

 

Woman wearing a black dress dumps a tube of glitter over Alan Garber on stage

 

 

Woman yells at Alan Garber after she poured green glitter on him which is visible on his back
An animal-rights protestor threw green glitter on interim president Alan M. Garber as he was about to speak.   |   Photograph by Jim Harrison

Garber, regaining his composure after the protestor was removed from the stage, said: “I hope that Harvard will always continue to be a place where free speech continues to thrive.” The audience applauded. (A few minutes later, the woman was escorted away in handcuffs. Afterward, the animal rights organization PETA released an announcement on its website identifying the protester as a PETA supporter named Brittany Drake.)

Then he went on with his speech, a mix of sorrow and optimism. “This has been a difficult year for all of us who love Harvard,” he said, adding that “I have never felt more grateful for what usually happens here”: the learning, teaching, research, and scholarship that usually dominate campus life. “All of that happens every year,” he said. “It happened this year, too, across the University.”

But in order for the University to emerge from the upheavals that accompanied, and in some cases derailed, those normal activities this past year, Garber added, “We must work to value generous listening at least as much as informed speaking, to celebrate passionate discourse and reasoned debate, to champion decency, empathy, and integrity, particularly in times of conflict and division.… Now is the time to think creatively and ambitiously about how we can expand our efforts to rebuild a culture of civility and respect, a culture that empowers people to come together in a spirit of goodwill.”

He cited a report released this week by a faculty committee considering when and whether Harvard should speak on public issues. That Institutional Voice Working Group concluded that Harvard and its leaders should only issue statements on matters that directly affect the University’s “core functions” of teaching and research. “The approach is intended to preserve open inquiry and academic freedom by making it easier for all members of the community to express their views,” Garber said. “It is a foundational commitment, and I am eager to see it implemented.” He added, “I will have more to share with you during the coming academic year.”

 

Protestors hold signs in protest
Pro-Palestine protesters stood up and chanted near the end of Garber's remarks.  |  PHotograph by Jim Harrison

As he concluded his remarks (“You, the alumni community, have been a source of wisdom, inspiration, and joy for me…”), a group of pro-Palestine protesters in front of the Widener Library steps unfurled a banner and chanted for Harvard to divest from Israel. The audience booed and sang back at them in Yiddish.

 

A man plays the cello while and other man performs with microphone
Cellist Eugene Ye ’25 and beatboxer Eliot Min ’23  | Photograph by Jim harrison

Afterward, cellist Eugene Ye ’25 and beatboxer Eliot Min ’23 gave a performance of the contemporary jazz piece “Julie-O,” by composer Mark Summer.

 

Three Harvard Medalist pose for a photograph
Harvard Medalists (from left) M. Lee Pelton, Ph.D. ’84; Katherine "Katie" N. Lapp; and Scott A. Abell, ’72  |  Photograph by Jim Harrison 

Honoring the 2024 Harvard Medalists

The event also celebrated the three recipients of the Harvard Medal, given for extraordinary service to the University: Scott A. Abell ’72, Katherine “Katie” N. Lapp, and M. Lee Pelton, Ph.D. ’84.

Abell is founder and former CEO of the Ohio financial services holding company Abell & Associates, from which he retired in 2004. During the past 30 years, he has served as president of the Harvard Board of Overseers, HAA president, and dean for development in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. He has also been president of the Harvard Club of Northeast Ohio, HAA regional director, and vice chair of the Harvard College Fund executive committee.

Lapp was Harvard’s executive vice president from 2009 to 2022 and was instrumental in Harvard’s approach to the COVID-19 pandemic, from the onset of the crisis through the return of students and faculty to campus. During her tenure, she was also responsible for aspects of human resources, finance, and capital planning. She helped oversee the University’s response to the Great Recession, helped institute its sustainability goals, and was integral to the planning and execution of the new development projects in Allston.

Pelton is a longtime alumni volunteer, serving on the Graduate School Alumni Association Council and the Board of Overseers, as well as the visiting committees for Harvard College, the Harvard Library, and Athletics, and the Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility. A scholar of English, he is a former president of Willamette University and Emerson College. Currently, he is president and CEO of the Boston Foundation, which addresses the region’s greatest disparities for historically marginalized communities. (Pelton is also an Incorporator of this magazine.)

A “Moral, Political, Ethical, Psychological, and Historical Battle”

In fierce, powerful remarks, Vance covered a vast rhetorical territory, from the 1864 presidential election during the Civil War and the compromises that gave rise to the violence of Jim Crow, to the fights of the civil rights movement, to his own family losses, to current geopolitical convulsions and threats to American democracy and the “moral, political, ethical, psychological, and historical battle” that engulfed Harvard this past year. And he kept returning to a deceptively simple idea: what it means to do the right thing.

“This is a very challenging time for all people, but especially our youth,” he said, recalling a speech he gave earlier this year to the Harvard men’s basketball team at a breakfast hosted by head coach Tommy Amaker. “By the time we deal with one ridiculous thing, that next crazy unbelievable thing happens. And we all go around pretending like, ‘Hey, I’m cool. I got this. We got this.’ And we really don’t. No, no, no, we really, really don’t.”

An award-winning actor raised in Detroit known for his role in films including Hamburger Hill, The Hunt for Red October, The Tuskegee Airmen, The Preacher’s Wife, and The People vs. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story, Vance last year co-authored a book, The Invisible Ache: Black Men Identifying Their Pain and Reclaiming Their Power (with psychologist Robin L. Smith). Partly a memoir of the fallout from his father’s suicide 35 years ago, it’s also work of psychology, offering practical guidance and support amid skyrocketing rates of suicide and other mental health problems among African Americans, especially African American men. In his Alumni Day remarks, Vance recalled that after his father’s suicide, his mother moved in with his family and allowed him and his wife, the actor Angela Bassett, to care for her through her illness, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS); she died several years ago.

“I’m called in this life to be kind,” Vance said. “And that is what I’m challenging all of you here today, as we ask ourselves, ‘But is it right?’ I challenge you to make choices in the short time we have here on this earth that live up to your neighbor, your colleague, and potentially your enemy.… I’m talking about those moments when your life or your children’s lives spin on a decision, and you have to make the right call. I’m talking about when your wife or your brother, your sister, your mother, your father, your best friend is in crisis and you have to make the judgement call. We have to practice being intentional.”

Turning from personal decisions to societal ones, he added, “What will it take for us to realize that we are and have been at an inflection point?” He noted the rising and sometimes destructive influence of technology, the often unacknowledged emotional scars of the pandemic, and the current derangement of American politics. “When will the phrase, ‘I’ve seen worse’ ring hollow for us?” he asked. “Our very form of government is at stake. Have we lost our very minds, our very souls?” Later, he added, “Every now and then, there comes a time in all our lives when we must take a position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but we must take a position because it is right. Is this that time for us?”

A few minutes later, he concluded: “Let’s try harder to be people of our words—young people are watching. And remember: whatever you’re going through, it has come to pass. It has not come to stay.”

Read more articles by Lydialyle Gibson

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