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On a mild summer day in 1947, U.S. Secretary of State George C. Marshall outlined on the Memorial Church steps what would come to define his legacy: a plan to rebuild a European continent scarred by World War II. Speaking to a commencement crowd packed into Harvard Yard, the general-turned-statesman dispensed with any lingering vestiges of American isolationism to establish a new, post-war normal that endures to the present day.
Almost 75 years later, we face another episode of shared human misery that demands an equally seismic shift in collective thinking — a new normal of our own. Economic inequalities, political differences, and a public skeptical of scientific truths fueled a pandemic that still ravages every corner of the world. While a vaccine may halt Covid-19's spread, the antidote to the injustices it illuminated cannot be delivered through the tip of a needle.
Many of these persistent social ills result from a lack of accountability in both the public and private sector. While an incompetent government response allowed Covid-19 to spread, corporations like Amazon and Instacart subjected workers to unsafe conditions during the pandemic’s tumultuous early months. Unaccountable police departments allow officers to kill people of color with near impunity while private banks reinforce racial caste systems through discriminatory lending practices. In a fraught political system carved up between the public and private spheres, responsibility for defending the common good cannot be reserved entirely to the former. We, as both consumers and citizens, must expect the private sector to shoulder some of the burden.
Harvard University is one private actor that can certainly embrace a greater responsibility for the broader welfare. While institutions like Harvard are right to primarily focus on the people that comprise its community, they cannot be blind to the power afforded by reputation, wealth, or intellectual status. Since Harvard’s power exists, we as members of the community should expect the University to wield it with an awareness of the public good — starting by taking better care of its workers in an ongoing pandemic and encouraging peer institutions to do the same.
But Harvard as an institution is perhaps not the most important player in the emerging system of shared responsibility. Many of the most powerful companies — from Google to Goldman Sachs — employ a steady stream of Harvard alumni to fuel their corporate engines.
Six in 10 2020 graduates planned to enter jobs in either consulting, finance, or technology, according to a Crimson survey. Should candidates for these positions emphasize that a company’s commitment to improving public welfare is a recruiting selling point, these companies might begin to acknowledge their outsized social impact. Condemning each alumnus holding a high paying job or excusing them from all responsibility for their employer’s actions are equally insufficient remedies. Instead, we should encourage collective action on the part of many newly minted professionals who can pledge to work for employers who don’t require workers to check their conscience at the door. If students banded together and gravitated towards socially conscious employers, then entire industries would be forced to change their approach towards public accountability to keep competing for top-flight talent.
This month’s attempted coup makes the case for shared accountability even more clear. While President Donald Trump and his minions in Congress bear the lion’s share of responsibility for inciting violence against our democratic system, the blame ought not fall solely on those occupying public office. The corporations who funded his campaign, the political operatives who helped him win, the media companies that amplified his message, and the consultants who abetted his cruelest plans all operate on the periphery of government. Guided by blind ambition, they hitched their wagons to the political fortunes of a man with contempt for democratic governance. So while we as the Harvard community are correct to denounce the examples of U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), U.S. Representative Brian Mast (R-Fla.), and U.S. Representative Elise Stefanik ’06 (R-N.Y.), we should not forget their legion of private enablers that reside just beyond the eye of public scrutiny — many of them boasting the same sterling academic credentials afforded by our institution.
As a community and a nation, we should take seriously the joint public/private responsibility to advance the collective good. Progress in a complex world means that we can no more excuse private institutions from doing their fair share than we can rely entirely on the government to solve every problem alone. While altering our general mindset is by itself insufficient to deliver change, dispelling the fiction that private agents bear no responsibility for the public good and can run wild without restraint is a necessary first step towards a more prosperous future. Healing the trauma endured in recent months means that nobody, including the private sector, gets a free pass.
When Marshall announced the plan that would come to bear his name, he addressed the first regular commencement following the conclusion of World War II. Someday soon, Harvard will host its first graduation following another global catastrophe. On that May day, this institution and its graduates must embrace a new mode of thinking instead of retreating to an old and tired “normal.” I pray that such a new paradigm recognizes that maintaining the collective good requires a shared effort of both public and private institutions, whose members are empowered to hold them to account.
Timothy J. Foley ’21 is a Social Studies concentrator in Leverett House.
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