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In Welcome Messages, Bacow Stresses Public Health and Activism

University President Lawrence S. Bacow speaks at the 2019 Freshman Convocation
University President Lawrence S. Bacow speaks at the 2019 Freshman Convocation By Kathryn S. Kuhar
By Camille G. Caldera and Michelle G. Kurilla, Crimson Staff Writers

In three messages to Harvard affiliates Wednesday, University President Lawrence S. Bacow called on the community to heed public health measures and take care of one another ahead of the start of the fall semester.

As Harvard joins the ranks of universities nationwide with campus opening plans put to the test, the University is relying on its community compact and testing regimen to keep its positive case count low and its affiliates healthy.

At a service at Memorial Church on Wednesday, Bacow spoke about the importance and comfort of rituals, framing public health measures as “daily celebrations of life” that protect oneself and others.

“Waking at home instead of on campus, working at home instead of on campus; these are actually commitments to keeping members of our community safer than they would otherwise be,” Bacow said. “They are our new ritual.”

At Convocation on Tuesday, Bacow advised new students to bear in mind the responsibility of attending Harvard — a responsibility which he said starts “close to home.”

“Social distancing, mask wearing, hand washing: these actions may save your life, the life of someone close to you, the life of someone you’ll never meet,” he said. “In moments when compliance feels like a nuisance—and we’ve all been there—I hope you’ll remember the stakes and do the right thing.”

Beyond emphasizing that duty, Bacow encouraged the College’s newest students to register to vote, find and fight for causes they care about, and “try to right” wrongs they see in the world.

“This summer — just this week — the streets of cities across this country have been filled with protestors, demonstrations unlike any I have seen since I was your age,” Bacow said. “People are marching for justice.”

“They are marching against racism, and they are shining a light on systems and symbols in this country and elsewhere that perpetuate inequality,” he added. “That, too, is democracy in action — citizens exercising their rights to help right wrongs — people working together to form a more perfect union.”

The speech was indicative of an evolution in Bacow’s public rhetoric in response to the protests against systemic racism and police brutality that swept the nation this summer, from an email to affiliates on May 30 that focused on his “beliefs” in America’s values and the “goodness” of its people, which received criticism, to a direct statement that “Black lives matter” on June 10.

He also lauded anti-racist activism in an email to students on Wednesday.

“After George Floyd was killed and in the midst of stunning protests, you told powerful and personal stories about the experience of being Black in America,” he wrote. “You called on Harvard to fight racism and denounce white supremacy—important work that has only grown in urgency since the shooting of Jacob Blake.”

At the close of his email, Bacow admitted the unknowns of the “semester unlike any other” — and the possibility of both success and failure.

“When we get it right, we will celebrate. When we get it wrong, we will commiserate—and try again,” he wrote. “The truth is that none of us knows what lies ahead, but we face this uncertainty together.”

—Staff writer Camille G. Caldera can be reached at camille.caldera@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @camille_caldera.
—Staff writer Michelle G. Kurilla can be reached at michelle.kurilla@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @MichelleKurilla.

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