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News Analysis: In Foreign Trips, University President Bacow Presents Harvard’s Interests on a Global Stage

Massachusetts Hall is located in Harvard Yard.
Massachusetts Hall is located in Harvard Yard. By Kathryn S. Kuhar
By Michelle G. Kurilla, Crimson Staff Writer

Roughly two years since his appointment, University President Lawrence S. Bacow has sought to engage with students, alumni, and political leaders in his extensive international and national travels.

Bacow has not shied away from discussing national issues such as immigration and the role of higher education in the world during his trips, as well as student protests surrounding divestment activism and the development of an ethnic studies department at the school.

In late January, Bacow traveled to the United Kingdom to deliver Emmanuel College’s annual Gomes Lecture at the University of Cambridge. During his speech, Bacow discussed immigration and its impact on higher education. He noted that John Harvard — a colonial minister from the United Kingdom and namesake of the university — immigrated to the United States.

“What was once a strong commitment to academic exchange is being eroded by a visa and immigration process that often treats international students and international scholars with scrutiny and suspicion, if not outright disdain and distrust,” Bacow said. “As a result of the disruptions and delays, talented women and men from around the world are reconsidering their decisions to join our college and university communities.”

Bacow added that he believes national immigration policies can “undercut” the strength of academic institutions.

“Now, let me be clear, national security is a legitimate concern, but I believe we must be wary of policy that undercuts the strength of the very institutions that make coming to the United States worthwhile,” he said.

In July, Bacow penned a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and then-acting U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin K. McAleenan to share “deep concern” over immigration policies under President Donald Trump’s administration.

Bacow made headlines following his first foreign trip as Harvard’s president to China and Japan last March. He met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and delivered a speech at the country’s elite Peking University as part of his high-profile visit to the country.

The state-run Xinhua News Agency reported Bacow said Harvard will continue promoting exchanges and cooperation with Chinese educational and scientific research institutions during his meeting with the President. The agency also reported that Bacow said he came as a representative of U.S. universities to promote educational exchanges with China.

Former University President Drew G. Faust also met with Xi on a 2015 visit to Tsinghua University.

In recent years, China has faced criticism that the Uighurs, a Muslim minority group living in Western China, experience detention and surveillance at the hands of the Chinese government — allegations the country denies. Bacow’s speech at Peking University made veiled reference to these issues.

“It is no wonder, then, that transformational thought and action often take root on university campuses,” he said. “They are places where individuals are encouraged both to listen and to speak, where the value of an idea is discussed and debated — not suppressed or silenced.”

To conclude his speech, Bacow read from Uighur poet Abdurehim Ötkür, calling him “one of China’s great modern poets.”

Bacow has also reconnected with alumni during foreign visits. During his trip to Asia, he participated in events with local Harvard alumni clubs in Hong Kong and Japan. Last November, he also met with alumni on a trip to the inaugural International Leadership Workshop held by the Harvard Alumni Association in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Throughout his travels, Bacow also made references to protests in Cambridge — including calls for the divestment of Harvard’s endowment from the fossil fuel industry and the establishment of an Ethnic Studies department, and disputes surrounding the contract negotiation for Harvard’s graduate student union.

During his speech at Emmanuel College in January, Bacow discussed the challenges universities faced when he was an undergraduate, recounting the 1969 occupation of Harvard’s University Hall by anti-Vietnam protesters and the 1970 firebombing of Tufts.

“Our students are organizing and protesting,” Bacow said. “This time it’s not about war. This time it’s about climate change; it’s about inequality; it’s about sexual assault and harassment—it’s against a whole host of structures and systems that jeopardize the possibility of a future that they believe might be far more just.”

He added that students’ earnestness and passion remind him of his undergraduate years, but that he fears their ire would put the University “in tension” with their values.

Bacow referenced ongoing student protest at Harvard in his March Peking University speech.

“In many circumstances, my role as president is not to define the ‘correct’ position of the University but to keep the channels of discussion open,” Bacow said. “And one of the most important—and most difficult—of our tasks is to ensure that all members of the community feel empowered to speak their minds.”

—Staff writer Michelle G. Kurilla can be reached at Follow her on Twitter@MichelleKurilla.

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