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Harvard doesn’t know what it wants to be.
The trials of the last three months have clarified that fact, but Harvard’s identity crisis did not begin in the fall of 2023. It took time to fester until, suddenly, we were amazed to watch it give way to international controversy.
Over the last century, the University has adopted an increasingly public stature, coming to conceive of itself as an institution with a unique national purpose. Vexingly, though, it has failed to decide precisely what that purpose is.
Are we a school or a brand or a research lab? Are we political or apolitical? Are we a venue for debate or instruction? Do we exist for students or society?
The day after University President Claudine Gay’s resignation, the Corporation wrote of Harvard’s commitment to “contributing through scholarship and education to a better world.” I am surely not alone in asking: What does that mean?
To the traditionalists, the academy should embrace the kind of cloistered scholarship and education that flourished in early European universities and the learned monasteries that preceded them. To the reformists, the university should involve itself directly in affairs beyonds its gates, contributing to a vision for the world by means more direct than merely instruction and research.
These dueling visions for the academic project lie at the core of Harvard’s identity crisis. A national political brawl centering our university only brought it to the fore. In many ways, I fear Harvard has leaned too heavily into the latter self-conception and endangered itself in the process. We have confused this institution’s mission to better the world through scholarship and education with a broad project of directly shaping that world.
At some point, we — Harvard’s stakeholders — began to impose on the University expectations that it would take explicit stances on social and political issues reflective of our own (disproportionately progressive) ideological or moral impulses. It has done so to its detriment.
Many among us envision a Harvard that continually comments on world events, metes out blame, and prescribes remedies based on explicit institutional values. It is natural, when one feels oneself and one’s identity as wrapped up in the identity of an institution, to seek affirmation in the words and deeds of that institution, particularly when it carries such social sway as Harvard.
But those wishes, while understandable, are unsustainable.
In the wake of the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas, society at large pressured Harvard into taking on a role as a direct political actor. The University’s leadership, of course, demonstrated incompetence in this capacity. They failed at articulating a satisfactory posture and at calming both affiliates and outside critics. Why? Because the role of a university is not to render verdicts on geopolitical disputes and pronounce those rulings in public statements.
The campus controversy that began the chaos of the last few months should have been resolved between students and their administrators. It was not. That it wasn’t is the product of years of pressure from affiliates, the media, and the nation at large for Harvard to pick sides, and of an administration that caved to expectation, all the while neglecting to keep its behavior within the scope of its mandate to inform the world.
That flaw was fatal. By failing to stand behind a well-defined and sensible mission, Harvard made itself an easy target for political attack.
Harvard has a purpose, and it is not to formulate and advocate the moral values of the average Harvard affiliate. And it is surely not to lounge in tweed, puffing on pipes and scrutinizing Thucydides for another 400 years.
Rather, we must harken to an archetype Harvard pioneered in the 20th century. We must remember the middle way of the modern university, which charts a course between scholasticism and activism, granting students and faculty the freedom to learn, share, debate, refine, and eventually mobilize their ideas beyond the university.
Let this be Harvard’s purpose.
It bears noting, however: Harvard must remain a vocal, forceful advocate for higher education — in some sense, its face.
If Harvard’s purpose is to steward the academic project, its sole social responsibility is to advocate, in the most aggressive and expansive terms, with every brick and book and billion of its being, that project and that project alone. Nothing further.
I want a proud, proactive Harvard that is sure and transparent in motive, and whose surety enables a feisty, earnest defense of academic freedom. Indeed, in recent weeks, I have been outspoken in my desire for a “vengeful Harvard,” prepared to sternly confront its detractors and dismantle the rhetorical scaffolding of anti-intellectualism.
To accomplish that, the University must unify its purpose behind a fortified, generous academic character. That requires that we, the Harvard community, let it.
Lorenzo Z. Ruiz ’27, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Greenough Hall. His column, “Searching for Harvard,” runs bi-weekly on Mondays.
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