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Harvard’s New President is the Liberal’s Old Dilemma

When we talk about representation, do we mean in process or outcome?

By Henry N. Brooks, Contributing Opinion Writer

The decision to name Lawrence S. Bacow Harvard’s 29th president will crystallize much of the same disagreement that defines the modern Democratic Party. His supporters will point to his track record as an environmental studies professor, a skilled fundraiser, and founder of Tufts University’s Office of Institutional Diversity. Critics will note his ties to large corporations and impute a pragmatism unsuited for radical reform. Time will tell how these debates unfold.

In the immediate, however, the community and public have become embroiled in another development: that Bacow’s selection marks "a return to white male leadership.”

One need not venture further than Twitter to witness the array of frustrated responses, including one user’s pithy congratulation to Harvard “on yet again choosing…a straight white male economist named Larry” (a reference to previous Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers). Other more banal assessments have included lamentations that Harvard would “crown yet another white man” and cynicisms about this “radical break with tradition.” These, along with at least one post in the popular Facebook group “Harvard Memes for Elitist 1% Tweens,” are telling of where our collective priorities lie.

In its coverage this past week, The Crimson has already detailed the range of relevant attitudes among campus ethnic organizations, which at various moments have called for Latino representation among the presidential candidates, requests for a strong affirmative action advocate, and demands for a champion of ethnic studies. In contrast, someone has yet to probe the connection between these resurgent identity discussions and our liberal sensibilities: specifically, how we resolve the old dilemma of “process” versus “outcome” in the context of representation.

Addressing this disjunction requires acknowledging competing conceptions of the problem. Process liberals view underrepresentation as the result of two potential failures: either that the selection committee inaccurately reflected the diversity of the public, or that the options under consideration were too narrow. Reform, as the process liberal sees it, must occur at one of these sites, on the theory that you can diversify the applicant pool but cannot assign an identity requirement to the position under offer.

Outcome liberals view underrepresentation as a problem requiring direct intervention. That traditional liberal norms cannot always accommodate diversity at the final stage is, according to these liberals, a shortcoming in itself. While amending procedures and attitudes might shore up long-run gains, they suggest, these reforms are impotent in the immediate.

Since America’s inception, leaders and administrators have litigated this dispute in the public sphere, at times improving processes and at others intervening in outcomes. Reconstruction, for instance, reflected a preoccupation with immediate, supervised results. By contrast, the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Class of 1904, emphasized process reform, putting in place the armature for labor laws and social insurance. Both were avenues for sweeping overhaul, occasionally operating in tandem. Process reforms, like Roosevelt’s, often endure longer.

With Bacow’s selection, outcome-oriented liberals seem to have dominated the response. As a result, few have bothered to ask the important process question: Were the applicant pool and selection body accurate reflections of the polity? Admittedly, this question leaves ample room for ambiguity, but nothing on an unprecedented scale. Three hundred years after Rousseau explained that democracies ought to identify a “general will” upon which to base decisions, we still struggle to locate it in practice; his point was no less crucial for it.

Calling attention to the rift between outcome and process-oriented perspectives is a timely project, particularly in the wake of similar liberal indecision following the 2016 election. Then, there was much excitement about a woman snagging the nomination of a major political party, which many cast as a sign of social progress. When Donald Trump won, Democrats had to parse through the wreckage in search of lessons. One crucial (yet unvoiced) question from that soul-searching was what to make of Clinton’s womanhood. Did her presence—which marked a widening of the horizon of representation—still reflect some sort of progress? Process liberals would say so; outcome liberals might disagree.

This taking stock of difference is a strong first step toward regrouping. In particular, it will help disabuse us of our yearnings for another 2008, when process and outcome aligned in a moment of moral triumph with the election of Barack Obama to the presidency. Those sorts of victories have proven rare and—more insidiously—deceptive to our democratic sense. They allow us to ignore the river running through our ideological camp. Liberals must set about bridging the rift between outcome and process, recognizing the advantage of the latter approach in times of urgency and the former when preparing for the long haul.

Rounding out the discussion about Bacow’s selection requires that we note that the presidential choice doesn’t reflect, as some would have it, a compromise. Bacow is not, as I’ve heard one classmate claim, a “carbon copy” of our past. He is the child of Jewish immigrants who came to this country fleeing brutal systemic violence (his mother was an Auschwitz survivor). Surely, these experiences have had some bearing on his moral faculties.

All the same, I say we stay positive. That Bacow is our incoming president may well prove to be a win-win scenario. Either he takes up the mantle of progress that some had hoped a woman of color would, or he forces us to finally acknowledge—and adjudicate—our liberal indecisions.

Henry N. Brooks ’19 is a Social Studies concentrator in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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