UPDATED: Sept. 30, 2019 at 1:23 a.m.
University President Lawrence S. Bacow apologized Saturday for using the 13th Amendment as an analogy to compare the University’s wealthy donors to slaves at a Tuesday meeting.
The comment — made at an Alumni Affairs and Development staff meeting in Sanders Theatre — upset some of the hundreds of staff members in attendance, according to the Boston Globe, which first reported the story. An anonymous staff member called the remarks “tone-deaf” in an interview with the Globe.
Bacow used the 13th Amendment to explain that just as people cannot own slaves, Harvard's 12 individual schools cannot "own" their alumni and limit their donations to other schools, according to the Globe. Such practices could be detrimental to fundraising efforts by schools with alumni who tend to find jobs in the non-profit or public sector and may subsequently be less wealthy.
Bacow later sent an email to staff Saturday morning stating that he did not intend to offend anyone with his remarks.
“I regret that these comments caused offense. That certainly was not my intent,” Bacow wrote. “I hoped to convey my belief that our collective job is to help our donors achieve their philanthropic objectives, which might include supporting activities in schools where they enjoyed no prior affiliation.”
Natalie Kopp, an international development officer at the School of Public Health who attended the meeting, wrote in an email that the context of Bacow’s comments was a question about collaboration and respect for individuals in the alumni community, but that his analogy was “unfortunate.”
“I think his comparison to slavery was unfortunate and was an off the cuff remark in response to a question from the audience but the spirit of his message was very clear,” Kopp wrote. “I understand why the messaging was concerning but I also appreciate him acknowledging those concerns and his promise to learn from this experience.”
Kopp also noted that at Harvard and other institutions, fundraisers often refer to donors as “my donor,” which she views to be a “harmful” practice.
“When we regularly use phrases like ‘my donor’ behind closed doors, we are falsely claiming ‘ownership’ and control over alumni and benefactors we care deeply about and who care about Harvard,” Kopp wrote. “Our role as fundraisers is to be a philanthropic guide and advisor, not to persuade alumni to give only to their affiliated schools.”
Bacow’s comments were in response to a question about One Harvard — a concept former University President Drew G. Faust adopted as part of the University-wide fundraising effort known as “The Harvard Campaign” — reported the Globe.
Bacow closed his email by saying that he plans to learn from this moment.
“People, appropriately, have high expectations for their leaders and their choice of language,” Bacow wrote. “In fact, you have high expectations for me as your president. I promise to learn from this experience. I do not want to disappoint you as I did some of you during our meeting.”
—Staff writer Alexandra A. Chaidez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @a_achaidez.
—Staff writer Aidan F. Ryan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @AidanRyanNH.