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This year, Oct. 12 was Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Cambridge. In Boston, it was Columbus Day. According to the Harvard Registrar, though, the University was closed four Mondays ago because of “Columbus Day (Federal), Indigenous Peoples’ Day (Cambridge).” This 21st century doublet may seem like a trivial concern at first — clumsy wordiness appears to be its worst offense. Yet just a bit more thought reveals the absurdity inherent in taking both sides of a fight between two irreconcilable claims.
If we take into account the full weight of historical scholarship, to honor Christopher Columbus is to approve of, or at least to tolerate, the genocidal massacres he committed or condoned against Indigenous peoples. To celebrate Indigenous peoples, meanwhile is to condemn Columbus for those same actions. The two conceptions of this holiday are fundamentally opposed to one another; they simply cannot both be cited at the same time in any rational sense.
This is only one example of the egregious inconsistency that arises from Harvard’s studious apoliticism. Another example, one with starker and more significant implications, is the long-standing firefight between student activists and the Harvard Corporation over divestment. University President Lawrence S. Bacow and other Harvard administrators have never claimed that divestment is wrong on moral grounds. However, they have preemptively precluded the use of Harvard’s endowment — the immensity of which makes it by far the most powerful weapon at its disposal — to advance political causes. The official response has always reiterated that the endowment ought not to be used to “achieve political ends.”
But even the notoriously feeble moral platitudes distributed by Bacow this summer call for more of a stand than this. To pick just one example, Bacow believes “that America should be a beacon of light to the rest of the world.” Such a belief, if sincerely held, ought to urge its holder — especially one who urges us to “act on your beliefs” — to find ways to brighten that beacon.
Perhaps Bacow believes that leading the world in the fight against the climate crisis or against the commodification of punishment, for example, are not causes worthy of his institution’s moral attention. Or perhaps he believes that divestment would not achieve either of those goals. Either one of these positions could save his inaction from incoherence. But to not contradict Bacow’s asserted principles, Harvard must either declare its opposition to these ends or assert that the proposed means are faulty. Declaring that some of its abilities are out of bounds will not suffice; to shield its most potent power from consideration entirely, even behind as high-minded a shield as apoliticism, is rank hypocrisy.
And for what? Some claim that the University must preserve its nonpartisan image, but it’s not as if the image of Harvard as an immaculate ivory tower dedicated to the impartial search for everlasting truth is that which most Americans see.
As politics has spread itself across almost every aspect of our lives, Harvard, albeit unwillingly, has become thoroughly enmeshed with our national power-struggles. This summer, Bacow sued the federal government over proposed visa restrictions in order to protect international students. Harvard’s affirmative-action policies have become yet another flashpoint in our endless culture wars, and one of its professors another bogeyman in the attempt to blame China for the coronavirus.
For better or for worse, right-wing America has lumped universities, Harvard included, into the so-called “liberal establishment,” and 59 percent of it believes that these institutions have a negative effect on the United States. Among Harvard graduates in the House of Representatives, Democrats outnumber Republicans 32-6, and Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Senator Tom B. Cotton ’99 (R-Ark.) — a former Crimson Editorial editor — and other prominent conservative alumni continue to downplay their Ivy League origins in favor of an adopted outsiderhood. 72.4 percent of this year’s freshmen class is liberal, and only 7.4 percent is conservative. The right-wing media’s breathless coverage of last year’s Harvard-Yale divestment protest and the well-publicized whining of self-professed free-speech crusaders strongly suggest that conservatives will continue to think of Harvard as a bastion of progressivism, no matter how adamant the administration is in shying away from standing up.
An apolitical vision of the University, therefore, is a pipe dream. Any hope that Harvard will morph into a universally appealing source of disinterested knowledge for Americas both red and blue is misguided at best and misleading at worst. Nor should Harvard strive to appeal to all: At a time when the most basic tenets of the academic enterprise — the scientific method, international collaboration, and many others — are under attack by a segment of the electorate, any real attempt to appeal to that segment would constitute a wholesale betrayal of the intellectual principles to which Harvard is dedicated. Rather than begging for acceptance from those who hold it in contempt, Harvard should abandon such sycophantry and free itself to abide by its own moral claims.
Chinmay M. Deshpande ’24, a Crimson Editorial comper, lives in Kirkland House.
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