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University President Lawrence S. Bacow recently apologized in an email to staff members for his recent comments at an Alumni Affairs and Development staff meeting last week, in which he analogized Harvard’s inability to control its donors to the prohibition of slavery by the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution.
While Bacow’s comments have not been released verbatim, his admitted usage of the 13th Amendment to explain that Harvard's schools cannot "own" their alumni has received widespread coverage, and rightly so. Harvard’s presidency is a powerful position with wide-reaching influence, and such insensitive analogies are certainly not to be expected. We condemn Bacow’s comments, which demonstrate a sense of racial thoughtlessness, and are unmoved and unimpressed by his apology.
We do not believe this comment was made with racist intentions, but we do believe it has racial impacts. Regardless of how Bacow meant his comments to be understood, the history of slavery in America should not be used as a casual rhetorical device. The fact that he would think to use it as such is baffling. It goes without saying that slavery was one of the U.S.’s most brutal and egregious sins.
But beyond the base horrors of slavery itself, the political institution of slavery must be understood as the starting point for race relations between black and white Americans in the U.S. From this position of complete subjugation in society, the experiences of black Americans in the U.S. have improved and evolved, but we cannot neglect the historical connection between slavery and current racial inequalities. The history of slavery still lives with us, and Bacow’s unprompted, offhand, and off-color analogy demonstrate a lack of respect for this fact.
It’s improper for anyone to make comments of this nature, but we are particularly disappointed that they come from our university president, given his obligation to represent all of Harvard. That obligation requires constant reflection on how one’s words will be interpreted by those watching Harvard. This analogy does not demonstrate that reflection, it does not represent the University well, and it does not reflect the beliefs of its current students and other Harvard affiliates who, through rigorous study here, seek to become the “citizens and citizen-leaders of the world.” We should expect better of those future leaders, as we expect better of Bacow today.
Of particular concern to us is the extent to which we find Bacow’s current apology insufficient. He apologized not for the comment itself, but merely for the offence that his audience took with it. His stated regret for causing offence is not a constructive response, and cannot be considered acceptable in the context of such a problematic public statement from the University’s highest officer.
If Bacow sincerely wishes to meaningfully understand why people found his comments distasteful and to learn from the experience we implore him to do more than just issue a lackluster email apologizing for his audience’s emotions.
To start, he could earnestly attempt to grapple with Harvard’s storied history with racism, including past presidents owning slaves and professors perpetuating racially-based theories. As Bacow inherits and builds upon this history, he should work to address this past in a constructive way. Instead, his bizarre comments about slavery do nothing but stymie reparative efforts.
Former University presidents, notably Drew G. Faust, have taken up the noble work of grappling with Harvard’s complicated racial past, and working to reconcile it with a more equitable future. Bacow would do well to recognize the power of his words, speak responsibly, and to follow that example.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.
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