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The University in “Contentious Times”

1.31.20

Photograph of Lawrence S. Bacow, President of Harvard University

Lawrence S. Bacow
Photograph courtesy of Harvard Public Affairs and Communications


Lawrence S. Bacow
Photograph courtesy of Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

President Lawrence S. Bacow, speaking at Emmanuel College, Cambridge University (John Harvard’s alma mater, in 1632), on January 25 addressed the challenge of maintaining universities as places for honest, thoughtful inquiry at a time of both external stress—in politically polarized societies on both sides of the Atlantic—and passionate internal disagreements. His remarks, delivered as the annual guest in a lecture series established in honor of the late Reverend Peter J. Gomes, ranged broadly, from rising objections to immigration and the sharing of ideas among peoples across boundaries, to a “public discourse [that] has become dysfunctional and coarse.”

Bacow warmed up his audience with some characteristic humor, noting of the occasion that “I want to take a moment to give credit where credit is really due. My appearance here this evening was really secured 382 years ago upon the untimely demise of one of your celebrated sons, a young man who gave his books, his assets, and—unbeknownst to him—his name to a fledgling institution of learning in the New World.” He continued, “Each year, thousands and thousands of pilgrims seeking good luck—and also good selfies—make their way past my office in search of this young man’s statue, which is among the most photographed statues in the United States.”

But from there, the president was all business.

Immigration, “Insularity,” and Making a Great America

Bacow often reminds his audiences that he is the son of immigrants—in fact, survivors of the Holocaust—and so embodies the possibility for creating a fulfilled life, and serving others and society, created by the movement of people in search of opportunity. Speaking of the University’s namesake, he said of John Harvard:

Imagine, for a moment, the depth of his despair, the intensity of his journey, the uncertainty of his prospects. Here was a person who nurtured deep conviction, a person who endured great hardship and summoned great courage, a person who traveled to an unknown wilderness for the promise of freedom—and the possibility of a better life. He perished before he could thrive, but his generosity ensured the survival of what would ultimately become an extraordinary institution of higher education.

None of us should forget that John Harvard was an immigrant. And he helped to make America great before there even was an America.

But now, he lamented:

We Americans have begun to question the value of embracing people who seek a better life in our country, who seek opportunities that we have, in the past, routinely provided for the most talented individuals no matter where they were born. What was once a strong commitment to academic exchange is being eroded by a visa and immigration process that often treats international students and international scholars with scrutiny and suspicion, if not outright disdain and distrust. As a result of the disruptions and delays, talented women and men from around the world are reconsidering their decisions to join our college and university communities. Now, let me be clear, national security is a legitimate concern, but I believe we must be wary of policy that undercuts the strength of the very institutions that make coming to the United States worthwhile.

That insularity, he continued, is a “symptom of a much larger problem” in the United States and Great Britain, pivoting to his principal themes, concerning the “contentious times” in which:

Much of our public discourse has become dysfunctional and coarse. Division and derision rule, and scorched earth is far more common than common ground. It feels as though we are always on the brink of some shift that will send the whole democratic experiment reeling toward chaos, toppling the foundations on which our society rests.

He broached that assessment, he noted, even though he is “widely considered an optimist.”

A New Era of Contention: “In Tension with the Essential Values We Represent”

For historical perspective, Bacow noted that his arrival at college, in 1969, coincided with the height of campus disruptions, in Cambridge and elsewhere, at the height of the nation’s divisions over Vietnam and racial inequities. Locally, those events were punctuated by the student occupation of University Hall, and their eviction, on President Nathan Pusey’s orders, by state police; and the firebombing of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts. Of note, he observed, those protests were externally oriented, and the campuses where they took place were not the ultimate targets: 

Colleges and universities at that time may have been the sites of student organizing and protest, but the institutions actually were not the ultimate targets. They were merely the springboard from which students launched their efforts—some of them unfortunately misguided, some of them truly, unfortunately violent—to demand change from a government prosecuting a war that many of us felt was wrong and unjust.

The institutions’ leaders then, he said, had to respond carefully, but although there were “missteps,” ultimately, “prudent decisions in the face of controversy also sustained and strengthened colleges and universities,” making them “more adaptable and more resilient than they might have been otherwise.”

Today, Bacow said, college and university presidents face challenges that feel similar to those their predecessors confronted a half-century ago, as students protest again—not against war, but about climate change, inequality, sexual assault and harassment: “a whole host of structures and systems that jeopardize the possibility of a future that they believe might be far more just.” 

But there is a crucial difference: “[T]heir ire is often directed inward, and some expect—and increasingly demand—that our institutions act in ways that I fear may ultimately put us in tension with the essential values we represent to the world.” At the same time, of course, amid political populism, universities face external criticisms that they are elitist, politically correct, and “out of touch with the broader society.”

In light of these circumstances, Bacow said, he had to ask: “What is our role in such contentious times?”

Standing for Freedom

He cited Gomes to the effect that freedom is not “a once-and-for-all enterprise. It is the constant renewal, reformation, and extension of freedom carried out by many people over many years under many circumstances that is really to be celebrated and contemplated, with the end and purpose of freedom in mind—in the words of the framers [of the Constitution of the United States], ‘the enjoyment of domestic tranquility.’”

Bacow adopted that formulation:

In every era—and especially in those that are less than tranquil—universities everywhere, I believe, must stand for freedom. We embrace the notion of its “constant renewal, reformation, and extension” in every aspect of our teaching and our scholarship. Every question asked and answered on our campuses, every answer that is scrutinized and reconsidered is in itself an act of freedom—freedom to explore, to discover, freedom to create branches of knowledge even as we graft and prune away others.

“When those branches of knowledge bear fruit,” he continued, “we are all enriched” through the progress of medical and public-health research, engineering advances, cultivation of the arts and humanities, and so on, and their dissemination through teaching, on campuses and worldwide. “Given the depth and breadth and expertise of research universities,” he continued, 

it’s no wonder that people look to us for explanations and for leadership in contentious times. They look to us to surmount the insurmountable, expecting, perhaps, too much of us on certain issues. Universities alone cannot solve the climate crisis. Universities alone cannot solve the problem of inequality. Universities alone cannot cure the host of ills that keep people up at night and make them worry about their children and worry about the future of their children’s children.

But what can we do? We can offer insight into the causes and costs of climate change; we can model the behaviors—both individual and institutional—that preserve and protect our environment even as we identify effective strategies for mitigation and adaptation. To address inequality, we can champion education and encourage leadership in education; we can develop partnerships that strengthen primary and secondary schools; and we can scrutinize the economic, political, and social structures that impede economic and social mobility. Moreover, we can also reflect on how institutions like Harvard and like Cambridge either create new paths for mobility and economic opportunity or, consciously or unconsciously, simply reinforce existing privilege.

But doing that substantive work depends on maintaining a distance from the divisions and politicking that characterize the world beyond the academy:

With these and other topics, I think we must rise above the din of the world, not to speak with one voice but rather to amplify all voices, to welcome views and opinions as varied as the individuals who comprise our communities. We must strive to model the behavior that we would hope to see in the rest of the world. For if we cannot talk about the issues that divide us, if we cannot have difficult conversations on these beautiful campuses that we inhabit, where everyone is smart, where everyone is committed—if we can’t figure out how to do that at places like Cambridge and Harvard, there is no hope for the rest of the world.

Universities’ Role: “Our Future Actually Depends upon Decency”

Bacow then cited Pusey, who certainly felt the full weight and heat of the passions that erupted during his presidency, noting that his predecessor had “beautifully articulated the value of research universities when prospects are dim”: 

In the complex and confused world in which we all find ourselves, it is possible to think of Harvard as a kind of island of light in a very widespread darkness, and I must confess I sometimes do just this. But I also know that the figure is not really an apt one, for Harvard has never been an island severed from the broad concerns of men and is certainly not one now. Instead, it is rather intimately involved in the complex culture to which it belongs. Its distinction is that [here] intellectual activity has an opportunity to come into sharper focus, and so becomes richer, more vivid, more convincing, and more captivating than in society at large.

The university today, Bacow said, fulfilling its obligation to the public to discover knowledge and share it, must—in the spirit of reforming and improving freedom and in pursuit of its mission—define academic freedom to “encompass the rigorous defense of objective facts” because “[t]he groundwork on which knowledge is built is being undermined” by “those who seek to sow confusion and reap the fruits of ignorance.” In this effort, he declared, “It’s time to speak up, and I believe it’s time to act. Facts are apolitical. Their defense is not a political act. I believe it is a moral obligation—one shared by every person on our campuses and on the campuses of colleges and universities around the world.”

He then introduced, in a subtle way, a caution about the mode of defending facts and of humility about universities’ further claims to proclaiming truths

Facts and truth are of course not the same, and we must be careful to define and honor the distinction. Research universities—and the universities we create and nurture—do not have a monopoly on truth. We must be willing to consider where our opinions begin to encroach on our knowledge, and we must be willing to have our truth tested on the anvil of opposing explanations and ideas. How do we ensure that the freedom to ask and answer, the freedom to criticize and confront—the freedom even to argue—is extended to as many people as possible? I think the answer is quite simple: We listen. We must listen generously and embrace fully the challenge of being quick to understand and slow to judge.

While we can and must stand for facts, we also must be careful not to be drawn into overtly political debates. We must be committed to the search for truth, and we cannot and should not endorse positions on which reasonable people can differ. When we do so, we bring debate to an end by endorsing one position over another. And the function of the university is to encourage debate, not to quash it, and I would tell you that the function of the university leaders is to fulfill that responsibility. We must be—more than anything else—stewards of our institutions’ values. To do otherwise risks politicizing the university, and, in the process, jeopardizing the public support and public trust on which we all depend.

Although this distinction matters to external audiences (for whom it may prove very subtle), Bacow was clearly addressing the community within Harvard and peer institutions. Returning to a consistent theme of his Tufts and now Harvard presidencies, he said: 

We must welcome and embrace those who disagree with us, and we must be wary of the dangers of moral certitude. On this point, I am fond of paraphrasing the great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who said: It is always wise to look for the truth in our opponents’ error, and the error in our own truth.

Tomorrow, Harvard Forward is expected to deliver petitions to the Office of the Governing Board, seeking to qualify a slate of candidates for election to the Board of Overseers who are campaigning on a platform of changing University governance and advocating divestment of any endowment investments in the fossil-fuel industry. Next Tuesday, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences is scheduled to vote on a faculty-written motion calling on the Corporation to direct Harvard Management Company to “withdraw from, and henceforth not pursue, investments in companies that explore for or develop further reserves of fossil fuels.” Although he has made clear his view that climate change is a severe threat, Bacow has also made clear that he believes the University’s contribution to solving the problem lies through research and teaching. He and the Corporation have opposed divestment.

While divestment does not appear directly in his Emmanuel College remarks, the campus advocacy about the issue (he has met with divestment proponents in diverse forums and settings) and other recent divisions (concerning ethnic studies, and the December Graduate Student Union strike and accompanying divisive negotiations) likely were among the sharply drawn, internal, and inwardly directed matters that were on his mind as he concluded his address:

This is not to say that the arguments of some members of our community, who are out there criticizing or protesting, that their arguments are without merit. Our students have every right to be angry about the world they will inherit—and I would rather address their anger than bemoan their apathy—but they also have a responsibility as educated people to face the realities of that same world. To them, civility may feel like an antiquated notion, but it offers a well-worn path to overturning conventional wisdom and making meaningful and lasting change. The same is true of questioning institutions of government responsible for public policy and holding them—and elected officials—accountable. I hope to see more of both in the decade to come—not because I yearn for bygone days, when things were easier and quieter and more civil, but because I believe our future actually depends upon decency, our future depends upon civil discourse, and our future also depends upon our helping our students understand that sometimes the best way to bring about change, especially change that is directed at the government, is to exercise their rights at the ballot box.

The renewal, reformation, and extension of freedom: this really is our shared enterprise. We work toward these ends not only to honor the promise of higher education but also, I believe, to serve and advance the principles of democracy. Universities must take seriously the work of preparing young people for lives of citizenship. Liberal education offers a strong foundation for adulthood in a rapidly changing world. I remind people that the original notion of a liberal education was to educate citizens for a democracy. We must never lose sight of that goal. It imparts skills that make navigating this new, difficult, challenging, fractious world possible—even, dare I say, enjoyable—and, at best, it emboldens people to fully engage in the issues of the day and create opportunity for others. Much is rightly expected of those to whom much has accrued.

People around the world look to institutions like ours because we have earned their confidence and their respect over hundreds and hundreds of years. We ought to do all that we can do to maintain both, especially in these contentious times, especially when we are all seeking a bit more tranquility—whether domestic or otherwise. That is an end worth contemplating and celebrating as we enter this new decade together. And if, by chance, we should find ourselves frustrated in the years ahead, I think we would do well to remember the wisdom offered by Professor Peter Gomes regarding patience and persistence. “We may not be able to make an end,” he said, “but…we are enabled to make a beginning, and that is no small thing.”

President Bacow’s full text appears here.

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