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Editorials

Harvard’s Next President Must Refocus on the Academic Mission

By Emily N. Dial
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

Former University President Claudine Gay’s resignation on Jan. 2 was abrupt, but, somehow, familiar: For the third time this decade, Harvard has to pick a new president.

The search will unfold against the backdrop of unprecedented scrutiny and severe skepticism of universities in American society. Critics have castigated colleges as breeding grounds for antisemitism, safe havens for plagiarists, and hotbeds of ideological conformity as public trust in higher education institutions hits historic lows.

Beneath the controversy, there lies an unsolved question about Harvard’s core mission: Do we exist primarily to educate and research — or to advance social good?

In recent years, Harvard has emphasized its social purpose, sometimes more aggressively than its academic goals. When asked why he accepted the presidency at Harvard, former University President Lawrence S. Bacow mentioned combating climate change and threats to democracy — the social purpose of the University, in other words, but not its essence.

Harvard’s focus on its social mission is also visible in its unrelenting commentary on political events, from the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, to the death of George Floyd, to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, to, of course, the abundance of statements on the Israel-Hamas war.

Few would argue that a leading university attempting to advance social good is harmful. In fact, some socially conscious University policies — such as recruiting and admitting a diverse student body — serve both its academic and social missions.

But as Harvard again contemplates its future, we are concerned that these important causes have overshadowed the more fundamental purpose of our University: to be a center of research and learning.

At this moment of crisis, Harvard needs a president who can reverse the trend.

A University in Identity Crisis

Do academics at Harvard take precedence over social pursuits, or does the University’s social objective supersede its scholarship?

The lack of clarity on this fundamental question impedes Harvard’s ability to truly excel in either goal. Without clarity on its purpose, the University struggles to chart a course, constantly oscillating between two objectives that are sometimes in tension.

Should the University speak out on political issues even if it threatens intellectual vitality? Should it direct resources to outward-facing initiatives or instead pour funding into academic departments? Should the College weigh test scores or community service more heavily when admitting high school applicants?

These are the impossible questions Harvard confronts when it attempts to simultaneously embrace two missions that can stand in tension.

Recently, it appears that Harvard has allowed its social goals to direct its academics. They have rolled out new centers designed to help society contend with difficult issues — such as climate change and artificial intelligence — while attempting to lump together small humanities departments.

Their practice of making statements on social and political issues, in addition to damaging academic freedom, has divided our community and generated international outrage, distracting us from our studies and hemorrhaging the University’s support in the halls of Congress and the court of public opinion.

More fundamentally, while Harvard extends its social mission, the appearance that its academic mettle has slipped allows critics to claim that the University has traded its commitment to veritas for a commitment to social justice, abandoning the ideals of academic freedom and intellectual vitality upon the way.

The solution to combating widespread distrust in higher education is refocusing on scholarship as the center of Harvard’s academic mission. A commitment to truth, knowledge, research, and education must be emphasized both in Harvard’s public messaging and administrative decision making.

Harvard’s Next President

Harvard’s 31st president must lead the charge guiding Harvard back to its academic mission. When asked why they accept the job, their answer should be a resounding endorsement of the powers of research and education — and of Harvard to do both.

Our next leader must believe in the capacity of Harvard’s scholarship — believe in it so fervently that they defend it dearly, loudly, and passionately to the harshly judging world. They must be clear-headed regarding the identity of our school and the primacy of education to Harvard’s mission, and should be capable of deftly articulating our core principles to the general public.

An insider pick with an academic background could be best suited to make the case for Harvard and for its academic mission. At the same time, our president must be an effective administrator capable of communicating to the press and reassuring donors at a time of heightened scrutiny.

Choosing the right candidate is essential at this perilous moment in our University’s history. The search process for Gay’s successor must be methodical and avoid the impression of hastiness that haunted Gay’s tenure.

The Harvard Corporation, the University’s highest governing board entrusted with spearheading the search, should also be more transparent in their process. What qualities are they seeking in the next president? Why did they select who they selected? The more forthcoming they are with details, the more confidence stakeholders will have in their decision.

The search committee also ought to solicit input from students and faculty through formal advisory committees, ensuring the Harvard community feels well-represented in the institution’s next choice.

A Return to Scholarship

Reasserting the importance of the University’s academic function is not merely a concession to an angry public that has soured on us — it will also promote Harvard’s social mission.

Concretely, Harvard must ensure that it attracts and retains top faculty in each field, that it provides them with the requisite funding to do cutting-edge research, and that it upholds the highest standards of instruction in its classrooms. They must also adopt an institutional neutrality policy to enhance academic freedom and protect professors’ ability to do their research.

High-quality academics are a prerequisite for progressing the social good. Harvard’s ability to affect societal change is contingent on the level of trust it enjoys with the public. Academic excellence can help the University promote social justice by shoring up public support and producing well-educated students prepared to critically and meaningfully engage with the world around them.

Refocusing on Harvard’s academic mission does not mean abandoning the University’s social purposes — it just means recognizing where they rank in the school’s hierarchy of values.

Often, initiatives aligned with the University’s social mission directly support its academic function. Harvard’s defense of affirmative action and its lawsuit against the Trump administration’s guidance for remote instruction of foreign students during the Covid-19 pandemic both aimed to make our classrooms more diverse and accessible, improving the quality of our learning and research. Noble efforts like these must continue.

But when socially guided programs are distinct from the University’s academic purpose — or worse, when they run counter to it — we expect Harvard to recognize its prime identity as a university, not a driver of social change.

***

This year placed Harvard squarely in the center of a congressional investigation, as a defendant in a federal lawsuit, as the subject of a Department of Education probe, and in countless national headlines. But more fundamentally, the University found itself at a crossroads between its dueling academic and social responsibilities.

Climbing out of the current controversy will require clarity on our mission from the next president. It requires recognizing that the ivory tower’s comparative advantage comes from the prioritization of scholarship. It requires recognizing that educating citizen-leaders necessitates a focus on teaching. And it requires recognizing that veritas demands a total devotion to the truth above all else.

Resolving this identity crisis will not be easy, but 400 years of history demands it of us.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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