The end of the 2018-2019 academic year has arrived. I began my year with a long to-do list and, while I didn’t get through all of it, I am proud of how much we accomplished across the College this year. I am particularly proud that we opened our new Dean of Students Office, created the new pre-matriculation summer service program, and will launch our new General Education program this fall. I am also grateful for the opportunity to work with our new leaders, University President Lawrence S. Bacow, Dean of the Faculty of the Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay, and Dean of Undergraduate Education Amanda Claybaugh — and all of our dedicated Harvard College staff.
More important to me than any one achievement is my realization that I have ended this year with a different perspective on many issues. We engaged in difficult conversations about complex issues this year, including the admissions lawsuit, #MeToo, and questions of environmental stewardship and investment. Students have brought their concerns and opinions to me, pressed me to see their perspectives, and challenged my assumptions. Our students have been integral to transforming my thinking on different issues over the years such as the need for a program like the First-Year Retreat and Experience, and how the College should think about its connection to mass incarceration — and for that, I am deeply grateful. This year we marked the 50th anniversary of a historical milestone in student activism on our campus, 1969. Without that student activism, Harvard wouldn’t be where it is today, and without continued advocacy, Harvard will not be where we need to be tomorrow.
Harvard continues to grapple with the many challenges facing higher education, including protecting free expression, guaranteeing equal access to educational resources, nurturing a community based on inclusion, belonging, and mutual respect, and ensuring the we are accountable for environmental stewardship and responsible investment. We must continue to participate in robust and open dialogue about these issues.
Sustaining a college that enables all of its members to fulfill their potential is not easy work. Real and lasting dialogue in our community depends on treating each other with respect and dignity. Shutting someone down before they’ve had a chance to speak, communicating in 240 characters or by posting memes, retorting viciously against someone you disagree with, or assuming you have a monopoly on the truth rarely changes minds. On the other hand, we can make real progress when we engage in serious, respectful conversations in the classroom, over dinner in the dining hall, and at formal presentations.
Increasingly, I have come to believe that the polarization we see in society is exacerbated by the breakdown in the art of listening and dialogue. We get stuck because of fear that we will hear uncomfortable things. We get stuck because we fear we will not be heard. And yet, I have found even in my most difficult conversations this year that there is often common ground to be found. We all want to act to improve our collective future. We all want our friends, fellow students, colleagues, and everyone in the Harvard community to thrive. We all want to thrive ourselves.
As we end this year, I am recommitting myself to hearing you, to engaging with you, and to seeking common ground and areas of agreement. To find this common ground, we need your voices, your advocacy, and your ideas. And we all need to commit to creating an environment in which we are willing to listen to each other and to hear each other’s points of views and perspectives. There will be moments where we might agree to disagree on issues or decisions, but I promise you that I will take to time to really understand where you stand on an issue and why. I know you will do the same.
In the meantime, I want to offer congratulations to the Class of 2019 on your commencement. You have left an indelible mark on this community through your leadership and advocacy, listening and inquiry, creativity and hard work, and I am excited for all the future has in store for you.
Thank you also to our staff and faculty for the guidance you’ve given students and the commitment you’ve shown to Harvard College.
Classes of 2020, 2021, 2022 — I look forward to continuing our conversations in the fall.
Rakesh Khurana is the dean of Harvard College.