After contentious comments that angered many in the LGBTQ community, history professor Niall Ferguson offers an apology to a group of Harvard students and affiliates at the Harvard College Women's Center. A conversation about the comments and a broader dialogue broke out later in the session.
Before an audience of about 30 Harvard students and affiliates crowded in the intimate setting of the Harvard College Women’s Center, history professor Niall Ferguson offered another apology Monday afternoon for his recent controversial comments about economist John Maynard Keynes’s sexuality.
“I screwed up, quite badly,” opened Ferguson, echoing a May 4 blog post on his personal website and his open letter published in The Crimson last week. “Let me reiterate the apology that I made in print...I’m tremendously sorry.”
Speaking to a crowd of investors at a conference in California two weeks ago, Ferguson was asked to comment on Keynes’s famous remark, “In the long run we are all dead.” Ferguson responded by implying that Keynes did not care about intergenerational equity because he was gay and childless.
On Monday, Ferguson continued his effort to distance himself from those remarks.
“My main purpose in inviting you to come to this dialogue is to establish that I have no prejudice against childless people and certainly not gay people,” Ferguson said. “What I said was stupid and not malicious.”
Ferguson, who is also a senior research fellow at Oxford University and had flown over from England Sunday night for the event, had reached out to Harvard College Queer Student and Allies co-chairs Ivel Posada ’14 and Roland Yang ’14 and Director of the Office of BGLTQ Student Life Vanidy “Van” Bailey to organize an open discussion with the Harvard community.
“I thought it was a really good discussion,” Posada said. “I think people were very honest with how they felt, and I appreciate how conducive the [Women’s Center] was to that.”
After his opening apology, Ferguson spent the rest of the lunch discussion, titled “Sexuality and History: A Dialogue with Niall Ferguson,” answering attendees’ questions.
“This is an opportunity for dialogue, not debate,” said Assistant Dean of Student Life Emelyn A. dela Peña, who moderated the event.
When asked about his own experience as a father, Ferguson said he did not think it affected his views much in regards to the issue at hand.
“I think I’d think in exactly the same way about the broader issues of intergenerational equity, whether or not I had children,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson made it clear that as a historian, he found it “baffling” that some have suggested that gender is not relevant to understanding Keynes.
“As a biographer, I’m interested in sexuality like I’m interested in every aspect of the subject’s life,” Ferguson said.
Still, he reiterated, “I don’t at all somehow believe that there is a ‘gay economics’ and that Keynes was a part of it.”
Many of the attendees said they were pleased with Ferguson’s willingness to have an open discussion about the controversy, saying that the event sparked a serious discussion about the role of identity.
“I thought it was great how he focused the issue on how identity can play a role in history,” said Harry W. Hild ’16. “I am willing to take his word that his true feelings were expressed today.... I think he’s doing the right thing with trying to increase that awareness [about identity].”
Louis Cid ’14 echoed Hild’s sentiment, saying, “Professor Ferguson did a fantastic job of explaining his position and going into the nuances of how a historian thinks about questions of identity.”
Nonetheless, some members of the audience were left with lingering questions about the controversy.
“What do we expect in an apology? Or is it that once you make a mistake, you’re beyond being redeemed?” Posada reflected.
—Staff writer Bharath Venkatesh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @bvenka.