2015 Remarks at Morning Prayers

Appleton Chapel, Memorial Church

As delivered.

Today, as we embark on this new academic year and as we welcome to campus individuals from a wide range of origins, backgrounds, locations, and circumstances, I would ask that we pause to recall and reaffirm our purposes and our opportunities.

I often remark that for many if not most of those arriving at Harvard for the first time, this is the most varied community in which they have ever lived—perhaps ever will live.  People of different races, religions, ethnicities, nationalities, political views, gender identities, sexual orientations.  We celebrate these differences as an integral part of everyone’s education—whether for a first year student in the College or an aspiring MD or MBA or LLM—or for a member of the faculty or staff, who themselves are always learners too.

As the 2015-16 academic year begins, Harvard confronts a lawsuit that touches on its most fundamental values, a suit that challenges our admissions processes and our commitment to a widely diverse student body.  Our vigorous defense of our procedures and of the kind of educational experience they are intended to create will cause us to speak frequently and forcefully about the importance of diversity in the months to come. 

But simply gathering a diverse mixture of extraordinarily talented people in one place does not in itself ensure the outcome we seek.  Everyone at Harvard should feel included, not just represented in this community. “I, Too, am Harvard” must be a statement every one of us can confidently make.  Diversity must become belonging.

In recent years, we have been reminded we need to do more to make this so.  We have also been reminded of the profound challenges of inequality and injustice in the society that surrounds us—issues that necessarily shape our lives within as well as beyond Harvard’s walls. 

As we contemplate the year to come and a range of challenges before us, let us remember that building a community of genuine inclusion and belonging is a critical dimension of that work.  And let us acknowledge that such work is not easy.  There are many individuals who have arrived here this past week—and no doubt many already here—who have little understanding of the cultures, origins, and expectations of roommates, classmates, and section mates, of colleagues different from themselves.  Perhaps they worry that if they reach out, they will display their ignorance; that that ignorance will be perceived as insensitivity.  Can we strive to educate rather than isolate and condemn?  Can we together turn what we might leap to label as microaggressions into teachable moments?  Can we explain why phrases like “off the reservation” or words like “lynching” have a different and powerful resonance for individuals who hear them within a heritage of violence and oppression? Can we make our lives together the subject for inquiry and exploration and understanding in something of the same spirit with which we approach our academic purposes?

In a conversation about these issues among the deans this summer, Dean Jim Ryan of the GSE urged that we strive to be what he called “generous listeners.”  That is in my view the presupposition for real learning.  The University is an institution committed to free speech—yours and everyone else’s.  In the course of the year to come, that freedom is likely to produce some utterances that we deplore.  And there will be times we must speak out against them.  But we are likely far more often to encounter good intentions gone awry; mistakes and misunderstandings that are an inevitable part of this experiment in diversity we at Harvard are so committed to defend—in the courts, in the public discourse, and in our lives together.

Listen hard, listen generously, risk making a mistake, risk being made uncomfortable, risk forgiveness.  Learn from one another.