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A Sharper Focus on Harvard’s Truth

Lawrence S. Bacow, now entering his second year as Harvard president, sent a letter out to Harvard affiliates last week, as is customary at the beginning of a new school year. As is also customary, this letter highlighted moments when Harvard’s institutional interests happen to overlap with progressive causes.

This year’s letter focused on Harvard’s commitment to welcoming immigrants from around the world. No doubt, it is important for Harvard to address this topic, particularly given that an incoming freshman was denied entry into the United States from Logan Airport on Aug. 23. It is notable, however, that Bacow framed his argument for immigration reform not along the lines of human rights but rather in service of ensuring “long-term American competitiveness” and the benefits to “U.S. national interests.”

Bacow also shared the story of his own parents, who “like most immigrants, loved this country in part because they had the experience of growing up someplace else.” Such a sentiment should not be universalized, especially in 2019, when so many refugees and migrants around the world come to the U.S. in no small part because of the U.S. For neighbors to the south, NAFTA, the War on Drugs, and a long history of overthrowing democratically-elected governments are largely responsible for creating conditions that have led so many to leave home and seek refuge in the U.S. Do Iraqi and Afghanistani refugees who have arrived this century love this country because the conditions here are better than where they grew up, or perhaps do they recognize that they are here in no small part because we were there? The freshman whom Bacow alludes to, but never explicitly mentions, grew up in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon. Have the realities of his childhood at all been shaped by U.S. foreign policy?

Dislocating immigrants’ motivations to enter the U.S. from the causes that underlie these motivation is dangerous, and often serves as the starting point for ahistorical and racist movements that Bacow is ostensibly criticizing in his letter. But these mental gymnastics are not surprising, as Harvard has a long history of uncritical self-congratulation.

Quoting his predecessor Nathan M. Pusey ’28 (who is himself remembered in part for threatening to arrest of hundreds of students who protested ROTC presence on campus during the Vietnam War), Bacow appealed to a Harvard that is not “an island severed from the broad concerns of men.” Rather, according to Pusey and Bacow, it is Harvard’s integration within broader culture that allows the University, through intellectual activity, to bring sharp focus to society at large. This is a nice sentiment, but Harvard has always taken pains to dictate what does and does not constitute intellectual activity and, therefore, what should come into sharper focus and what should remain a blur. When Bacow calls on students and researchers to “seek and share truth,” we should remember what writer Rebecca Solnit recently wrote: “truth is whatever the powerful want it to be.”

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So what is truth for Harvard?

For Harvard, truth is 450 classes on leadership alongside seven years of institutional resistance on divesting from fossil fuels.

For Harvard, truth is a $40 billion endowment that successive presidents have called “apolitical,” despite investments in fossil fuels.

For Harvard, truth is withdrawing Chelsea Manning's honorary fellowship on the grounds that her conduct failed to fulfill the values of public service, but welcoming Mohammad bin Salman (and his checkbook) a few months later.

For Harvard, truth is kicking off the school year with silence on Harvard’s ties to Jeffrey E. Epstein, and then failing to connect his donations to Harvard's long history of problematic funders.

The silence on Epstein was particularly deafening. While MIT publicly fumbled with its own relationship to Epstein over the summer, Harvard remained characteristically quiet, saying in early July only that they won’t be returning the money Epstein donated. Bacow's letter Thursday evening — which ends with an unstartling confession that Harvard is not perfect — now joins a handful of other insufficient responses from the University, including a half-apology from George Church, a non-apology from Steven Pinker, and a recently-deleted petition in support of former MIT Media Lab Director Joichi Ito that was signed by a number of Harvard faculty, including Genetics professor George M. Church, Kennedy School professor Marshall L. Ganz ’64 and Law School professors Lawrence Lessig and Jonathan L. Zittrain.

The common denominator across Harvard’s truth is self-preservation. Harvard will continue to push the limits of dubious partnerships so long as these relationships lead to money and access. Harvard will continue to derive its morality through a vague commitment to future impact, rather than by improving institutional practices today. And Harvard will continue to speak in favor of progressive issues when it’s convenient, not when it’s vital.

Bringing a sharper focus to this truth requires that we find solidarity with existing struggles, especially those that spill beyond academia. Because like Harvard, resistance is not an island.

Griffin N. Peterson graduated from the Graduate School of Education in 2014 and was a 2016-2017 Fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society.

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