Harvard’s Human Touch

On a day celebrating diversity and change, we hope Faust will focus on social responsibility

President Faust’s two-day installation has been marked by its diversity, and especially significant at an institution such as Harvard, its modernity. Toni Morrison, arguably the quintessential modern novelist, spoke to a full house at Memorial Church yesterday. This afternoon, the Pan-African dance troupe will lead the robed procession of academics instead of the traditional bagpipe players. And, of course, Drew Gilpin Faust will be the first woman to speak from the steps of Memorial Church as president of the University.

These changes are the product of a shared belief—a long time in the making—among the leaders of Harvard University that ideas such as diversity are inseparable from the institution’s mission. During Faust’s tenure as the University’s 28th president, we hope that this democratic sensibility inside of Harvard’s gates translates into external improvements as well, specifically in the form of increased institutional social consciousness. Harvard’s reach is expanding near and far from Massachusetts Hall, and President Faust has an extraordinary opportunity to lead Harvard in a way that advances both Harvard’s interests as well as the greater good of the communities that Harvard is uniquely positioned to serve.

The issue that warrants Faust’s closest attention is Harvard’s expansion across the Charles. Over the next 50 years, Harvard will completely change the neighborhoods of North Allston and Brighton with its multi-billion dollar expansion. Already Harvard has had an enormous effect on the area by deciding not to renew the tenancy of many buildings along the Western Avenue corridor, effectively putting many Allston shops out of business. Most commonly, Harvard takes an “ends justify the means” approach to its practices, arguing that despite a few broken eggs along the way, the new campus will economically reinvigorate Allston and Brighton, attracting businesses much “nicer” than those that have closed.

For many Allston and Brighton residents, however, that news is hardly satisfying. North Allston and Brighton are largely working-class neighborhoods—resource-poor in terms of money, but resource-rich in terms of its diverse residents. If Harvard expands without concern for the residents of Allston and Brighton, many Allston residents (particularly those that rent their homes) will be priced out of the area and will have to move. For homeowners, the value of their house will rise, but the community that they joined will disappear, and in its place will be an inaccessible campus that resembles the bricked-off Business School.

Change happens, and no matter what, Allston and Brighton are not going to retain the same composition of residents or community feel after Harvard arrives en masse. There are many types of change, however, and Harvard can either act apathetically toward the current community, or it can be receptive to residents’ needs and desires.

On a small scale, Harvard could open its shuttles to residents; extend bike paths and green streets into the neighborhood; allow the local elementary school—which currently lacks art space—to have consistent access to the new museum.

On a large scale, Harvard could build affordable housing units on some of its many unused acres for some of the many long-term residents who will be forced to move due to a rising cost of living; open a University-affiliated Allston high school, in a similar fashion to the University of Chicago or Clark University; or open its thousands of housing units to Harvard staff as well as graduate students.

Harvard is not required to do any of these things, nor is it required to be a diverse place that highlights the Pan-African dance troupe or elects a woman to its highest office. In the not-too-distant past, neither of these events would have happened; it took the institution’s human side—the strength of its community members’ moral convictions—to push it toward the image of Harvard that will be on full view today in Tercentenary Theatre.

Harvard’s expansion into Allston and Brighton may be the most direct action that President Faust has control over, but there are other subjects about which the University’s social consciousness is crucial.

Faust should maintain the policy of divesting from investments that are directly linked to immoral and unyielding regimes whose unconscionable actions our community uniformly rejects, such as Apartheid South Africa in the 1980s and the Sudanese government today.

And as a scholar, Faust will hopefully lead the Harvard faculty toward making its work have a greater impact on society. Too often Harvard seems cloistered in an ivory tower. Whether it is transferring the advancements made in Harvard’s labs into practical technologies or opening up access to Harvard’s academic manuscripts to the public at large through open access publishing, Faust should seek to expand Harvard’s presence in our society.

Finally, we hope that Faust prioritizes service projects for Harvard students, backing them with the force of her personal budget, whether they are organized through the Phillips Brooks House Association, the Public Service Network, or even individual Houses.

Most of these projects require some sacrifice by Harvard, usually in terms of money. Although Harvard’s massive endowment certainly factors into these initiatives, our rationale in advocating for them is not to spend for spending’s sake. Being at Harvard—whether one is a professor, a student, or indeed the president—is truly a privilege. We all, as Harvard community members, have a responsibility to see that Harvard honors that privilege by striving to give back to the society and communities that surround us.

On Dexter Gate, one of the entrances into Tercentenary Theatre that many will pass through today on the way to President Faust’s installation, there is a famed inscription that reads, “depart to serve better thy country and thy kind.” We hope that throughout her presidency, Faust impresses this charge not only on students, but also on the institution itself.