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First-Person Leadership and Bacow’s Climate Crisis

Last Friday, I took the long way through the Science Center Plaza to pass Divest Harvard’s climate strike. I’d guess there were 200 strikers gathered around a thin young man with curly hair and sunglasses, who spoke from a platform. He was right on schedule, just a few minutes before noon, as he roused the sign-bearing students (alongside adults and kids too young to be in college): “Green! New! Deal! Green! New! Deal!”

Earlier that day The Crimson published a story about the Harvard Corporation’s ties to fossil fuel companies. In the grand scheme of Harvard’s suspicious financial relationships — Jeffrey E. Epstein, ties to Saudi Arabia, the Sacklers, etc. — the news wasn’t all that surprising, but it did strike me just how intimate these ties are.

Four of the 13 Corporation members have professional ties to the fossil fuel industry. One of them, Theodore V. Wells, who has recused himself from any Corporation deliberations on fossil fuel divestment since 2015, currently serves as lead counsel for ExxonMobil. Corporation member David M. Rubenstein invests in oil and gas projects through his private equity company The Carlyle Group, and has introduced the former ExxonMobil CEO at several speaking engagements in Washington, D.C.

The easy conclusion to draw here is that the Corporation — recusal or not —is significantly biased against fossil fuel divestment. But I find myself thinking about the predicament of University President Lawrence S. Bacow, caught between leadership and administration.

While Bacow has traditionally preferenced business-as-usual policies, less noted is his deeply personal sense of social justice. To be sure, his recent comparison of Harvard’s donor policies to the 13th Amendment was, as one anonymous staff member put it, “tone-deaf,” to say the least. Still, Bacow has time and time again shown a deep care for the social issues that affect the University and the world around it.

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In his fall welcome email, for example, Bacow took the opportunity to express his personal stake in U.S. immigration policy. “Not just as a university president, but as the son of refugees and as a citizen who deeply believes in the American dream, I am disheartened by aspects of the proposed new criteria for people seeking to enter our country,” he wrote.

How we treat the displaced is personal — relevant to three facets of his identity — and he’s done more than talk about it. When a Harvard freshman was denied entry to the U.S. in the days before orientation, Bacow played an integral role in getting him to campus. The president of the nonprofit organization AMIDEAST, which sponsors the student’s studies, said of Bacow, “He was very much a stand-up guy on this issue and it's very much appreciated.”

Bacow is not a climate change denier, and he admits there’s work to do. But there’s something absent from his voice — some quality of sureness and authenticity that I’ve grown to associate with the tone of his presidency.

In a piece for Harvard Magazine, Bacow wrote, “Climate change poses an immediate and concrete test of whether we, as members of a university and responsible inhabitants of our planet, will fulfill a sacred obligation: to enable future generations to enjoy, as we are privileged to enjoy, the wonders of life on Earth.” Rarely have I heard a less convincing use of the phrase “sacred obligation” — pulled out of the abridged dictionary of climate change clichés, alongside “concrete test,” “responsible inhabitants,” and “wonders of life.”

Of course, Bacow cannot write as Gabrielle T. Langkilde ’21 so movingly did in a recent Crimson Editorial column. “[Harvard] claims to be a safe space for all,” she wrote, “but how can I feel safe when its very investments in the fossil fuel industry are contributing to the destruction of my home?” From her own personal anxiety, Langkilde makes a powerful claim about Harvard’s obligation to divest. It’s not an abstract duty but one to a very real portion of its community, whose homes are being threatened right now. Bacow does not have access to that same anxiety, and he certainly should not pretend he does.

But, then again, you’d think his words might reflect more awareness of these community members and their concerns. When writing to the University about changes to Title IX policy last semester, Bacow forefronted his own sense of awareness and responsibility: “The events of the past year have underscored for me and for many other people that great institutions must work to protect and defend the people who make them great.” None of us need claim status as a victim to find personal significance in the issue of sexual misconduct. The same should be true in the case of climate change. None of us should have to experience the devastation of natural disaster to believe that climate change implicates us personally, not least in terms of our moral complicity. But I find myself missing that personal commitment — one of Bacow’s greatest rhetorical strengths — in his statements on climate change. “We owe the future nothing less,” Bacow concludes the Harvard Magazine piece. It’s a pithy sentence, no doubt. But it leaves me wondering what it means for he himself. What makes Bacow — the University President, the son of immigrants, the engaged citizen — care about that future? And what is that future anyway?

My point, then, is a small one. Yes, I stand with Divest Harvard in calling on Bacow and the Corporation to divest from fossil fuels. And I agree that an important first step in that process is disclosing the extent of those investments — and perhaps, in doing so, dispelling some of the suspicion around the Corporation’s extensive ties to the industry. But even before that, I urge Bacow to make climate change not merely a global issue but a personal one.

Great leadership demands personal commitment. It’s a lesson that Bacow continues to teach me. As I left the strike, walking past the Science Center toward Kirkland Street, I couldn’t help picturing Bacow up on that platform, leading the community in its demand for action. What would that Harvard look like? President Bacow, that doesn’t have to be a fantasy.

Isaac O. Longobardi ’21, a Crimson Associate Editorial Editor, is a Social Anthropology concentrator in Eliot House.

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