Harvard University has consistently ranked #1 in many global assessments of the world’s top universities. For generations it has sought -- with the aid of a massive endowment -- to be ‘the best in the world’ in as many fields as possible. Former Harvard College Dean Harry R. Lewis once noted that Harvard ”holds, in the public imagination, a distinctive pre-eminence.” True, but Harvard today has lost its way.
When Lewis was dean he said he once had had some difficulty in finding a university mission statement. He needed one in order to certify Harvard’s participation in the N.C.A.A. intercollegiate athletic program. “It turned out,” he wrote at the time, “that for 360 years Harvard College had never had a mission statement.” Lewis finally settled on Harvard’s Charter of 1650, a fundamental document in which Harvard committed itself “to the education of the English and Indian youth of this country, in knowledge and godliness….”
Even though Harvard long ago jettisoned the “godliness” portion of that document, the Charter of 1650 is more or less still in legal force today. Nevertheless, modern secular Harvard has always tried to keep its Puritan legacy at arm’s length. This was exemplified in 2017, when the university even held a contest to erase the Puritans from the former 1836 alma mater, “Fair Harvard,” expunging the words, “Till the stock of the Puritans die.”
Earlier, in 2007, the university barely acknowledged the 400th anniversary of the 1607 birth of its namesake, John Harvard, who willed half his fortune and library of around 400 volumes to the young college. We don’t know much about John Harvard (the famous statue in Harvard Yard is merely a representation). But one thing we do know is that he was a strong Christian. Given the titles in his library, we also know that he had a strong intellectual bent. He was clearly a man of vision and generosity. The university might at least have celebrated those qualities. But about all that Harvard University could officially muster at the time to mark the 400th anniversary of John Harvard’s birth was a display of copies of his books (all of John Harvard’s original library was lost in a fire in 1764), except for a 1634 edition of a book by John Downame, appropriately titled, The Christian Warfare against the Devil, World and Flesh.
Over the years, Harvard has continued the process of putting distance between itself and its roots. Until now. Now that history is of some use to those with a ‘woke’ agenda. We see that process on full display in Harvard’s official report released this past April titled, Harvard & The Legacy of Slavery. While the report does indeed shine an important light on some aspects of Harvard’s past with respect to slavery that need to be told, the report lacks context and is filled with half-truths, innuendo and ‘woke’ propaganda. It simply makes the bald assertion, for example, that “slavery [was] integral to Harvard.” While there are examples of slaves being owned by some Harvard presidents and what the report terms “affiliates” of Harvard, especially in the century from 1680-1783 (when slavery was officially abolished in Massachusetts), to say that slavery was “integral to Harvard” is an absurdity. That is much like the so-called ‘1619 Project’ sponsored by the New York Times, which characterized America’s founding as a “slaveocracy.” But the difference between what the Times did with the ‘1619 Project’ and what Harvard has done with this report is that this is Harvard’s own history that has been deployed in the name of ‘wokeness.’ The apparent goal was to place the institution’s past in the worst possible light. Such an approach does not inspire confidence in the institution’s ability to be a fair-minded arbiter of truth in other areas as well.
I document some of the failings of Harvard’s slavery report in a series of podcasts and articles produced at EarlyHarvard.com.
The current President of Harvard, Lawrence Bacow, in endorsing the slavery report, opined that a “commitment to truth means that we must embrace it even when it makes us uncomfortable or causes us pain.” That’s true; it should. And while President Bacow is to be commended for expressing a “commitment to [the] truth,” this report falls far short in that respect. It only gives us partial truths in place of the whole story.
Harvard’s famous motto, Veritas (Latin for “Truth”), represents the essence of that search for the truth. It also signifies the basis for good scholarship -- the very thing upon which any solid academic institution is built. But if that process becomes corrupted, then the institution itself is at risk.
In 2006, Dean Lewis already saw troubling signs. His book, Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education, was a plea at the time for Harvard to return to the basics. Lewis had observed that Harvard was losing its way in its mission of educating undergraduates. In the process, it was also becoming soulless as an institution, even though most of Harvard’s major departments and various institutional faculties continued to thrive.
A distinctive commitment to excellence is the one thread that links the Harvard of 1650 with the Harvard of today. But that link is now being broken -- excellence today at Harvard has taken a back seat to ‘wokeness.’
The fact that Harvard would officially endorse such a deeply flawed approach to its own history in order to virtue-signal its ‘woke’ constituencies is not just deeply troubling: it also demonstrates a disposition that threatens to corrode the very core of the institution. Despite its faults, if an institution does not find ways to honor or cherish its own legacy, it will begin to decay from the inside.
Some might argue that that process is already underway. In a 2021 survey, more than 40 percent of Harvard’s faculty who responded said they believed that Harvard’s academic standing had fallen over the past ten years.
Harvard today is at a crossroads. What it does next will impact the rest of American higher education, the nation, and the world in many ways. President Bacow has announced that he is stepping down in June. A presidential search committee is looking for a successor. Much is at stake. Groups such as FAIR Harvard Alumni+ reflect growing concern among alumni, as well as students and faculty, that certain fundamental rights and freedoms such as freedom of speech and academic freedom itself are under assault within academia. They are calling upon Harvard to clarify its mission and commitment to civil liberties, civil rights, and tolerance for viewpoint diversity in a pluralistic society.
Let us hope that the search committee chooses wisely. Let us also hope that Harvard’s current self-reflection on its past does not lead to new paroxysms of ‘wokeness’ in lieu of Veritas.
Otherwise, it is ‘Harvard on the way down.’
A.J. Melnick is a 1977 graduate of Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. He produces podcasts and articles for EarlyHarvard.com and is the author of a book on the history of the Harvard Corporation.