Toward a Better Community

Dear Members of the Harvard Community,

I have now received the final report of the committee convened to evaluate the lessons Harvard might learn about its policies, practices, and procedures in light of the events leading to the arrest of a student by the Cambridge Police Department last April 13. Led by Professor Annette Gordon-Reed and composed of members who offered an impressive range of expertise, the Committee undertook its work with great care and thoughtfulness. Their report is comprehensive, and I accept its recommendations enthusiastically.

The Committee articulated four principles to guide its efforts and to inform its recommendations. Each of these principles is important in its own right, but collectively they speak to what it means to create a vibrant and effective educational environment—the obligations the University owes to its members, the members to the University, and the members to each other.  

A paramount institutional responsibility is fostering an environment where students are safe and feel safe, and more broadly where they have the opportunity to do their best work and be their best selves. These were among the central reasons for the formation of the review committee itself. As President Faust noted in her charge to the Committee, the events of April 13 were deeply unsettling to many members of our community and especially to those from historically underrepresented groups. They caused students and others to worry about their personal well-being and also about their place as full members of the Harvard community—a theme heard by the Committee and reflected in comments from students set forth in its report.

I take these concerns seriously and, indeed, they speak to a central commitment of my presidency. I want every member of the community to be able, as expressed by the Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging, to participate “in the chances Harvard offers to learn, to create, to discover, and to achieve.” The testimony from students underscores the urgency of this work.  

We are fortunate that John Silvanus Wilson, the former president of Morehouse College, agreed to serve as the senior advisor to the president last spring. Since his appointment, John and his team have worked systematically to understand and address the cultural and structural barriers that stand in the way of progress. He is working across the University with many folks to develop comprehensive solutions and approaches to enhance inclusion and belonging so that all may achieve their full potential. With his guidance, a broad-based team will conduct a Harvard-wide pulse survey in February 2019, so that we will all gain a better understanding of opportunities and challenges ahead. He is also helping the University pursue the recommendations of the Task Force concerning the potential creation of two interfaculty initiatives called for in the Task Force report—one, to propose the kinds of structures required to support diverse populations; the other, to study whether there are better ways to integrate the scholarly and curricular work in identity, politics, and culture occurring across the University. In addition, the Task Force recommended Harvard-wide strategic planning to help move the University toward a campus culture characterized by inclusive excellence. That process will reach its next phase later this month when the plans from all Schools and units will be submitted, analyzed, and translated into a set of coordinated actions and outcomes.  

The Review Committee’s recommendations build on this foundation in several important respects. For example:

  • The Committee asks that key parts of the University, specifically Harvard College, Harvard University Health Services (HUHS), and the Harvard University Police Department (HUPD), build on their existing efforts to ensure cultural competency in their operations. Enhanced training and, for HUHS and the HUPD, seeking expanded input from students are critical steps in this work. So too is the Committee’s call for clearer and more sustained communication about the supports the University offers and the limits of those supports. Effective communication to University constituencies is essential to reinforce confidence in Harvard’s values and undertakings. It helps members of the community understand that they can rely on the University to do what it says it will do—as well as the limits of the University’s ability to protect against a variety of conditions and events that are outside its control. This is particularly important given the Committee’s observations about the confusion as to the roles HUHS and the HUPD play in medical emergencies and events occurring off campus. I have asked the senior institutional officials who oversee the College, HUHS, and the HUPD to provide concrete plans by the beginning of the next semester for implementing these recommendations. I also will update the community about those plans and our assessment of their effectiveness.    
  • The report recommends that HUHS and the HUPD expand their existing outreach activities with the goal of reinforcing bonds of trust and amity, especially among communities that have expressed the concerns heard by the Committee. Given the ever-changing nature of the student body, and that students come to us with experiences and understandings that can strongly shape their perspectives about health care and law enforcement on our campus, this is not only necessary but necessarily continuous work. I recognize that creating new forms of community engagement may require additional resources; I have asked the units to conduct an internal assessment and, if additional resources are sought, to work with the executive vice president on appropriate funding from the Office of the President.  
  • In its outreach, the Committee heard specific concerns from underrepresented minorities about what they perceive as the “significant barriers” to mental health resources on campus. The Task Force heard similar concerns. HUHS has undertaken many important steps in recent years, such as increasing the size and diversity of its staff, reducing wait times for appointments, and creating more points of connection between HUHS and the community. These are welcome changes, and they have made a difference. It remains the case that more can be done to address the student-focused issues heard by the Task Force and the Committee. How best to do so is among the matters I have asked to be addressed by HUHS’s leaders in the concrete plans to be submitted by the beginning of the next semester. 
  • HUHS’s efforts will be bolstered by a planned provostial review of student mental health more broadly that will incorporate findings from this report. The review will consider the experience of our undergraduate, graduate, and professional students and develop recommendations about longer-term solutions involving what our entire community can do to best support students struggling with anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions. In addition to formal services, we all have a part to play in ensuring the well-being and success of our students. The review will be seeking to identify and provide community members with the tools to help one another and to access resources for themselves and for those in need.

I also take seriously the context the Committee describes on the evening of April 13. I was troubled to learn about the student behaviors at Yardfest—behaviors that not only put the students involved at risk, but that also compromised the capacity of emergency medical personnel to respond to other crises, both on campus and off. The seventeen calls for service—nearly six times the rate from the previous year's—resulted in two local emergency rooms becoming so overloaded that they declined to take on any more intoxicated Harvard students. Many members of the community were concerned that the HUPD was not the first responder to the incident. But, like the medical personnel, the HUPD was stretched thin given other demands on their resources. The Committee’s recommendations about how Yardfest should be reconceived—guidance that should apply more broadly to other events like Yardfest—are thoughtful, and I have asked the College to consider how best to implement them. More generally, the report serves as an essential reminder about how interconnected any community is—how one person’s actions can have profound implications for others—and underscores the need for all of us to be cognizant of our responsibilities both to ourselves and to the broader community. 

Let me close by again thanking the members of the Committee for their service to the University and for the wisdom of their recommendations. The events of April 13 raised serious concerns, in the context of a national conversation about race, policing, and mental health, that warranted careful examination from the University. Thanks also to the many members of the community who engaged with the Committee, and in doing so shared important perspectives and showed an admirable willingness to devote their energies to improve the institution in which we work, study, live, and learn.

We may not be perfect, but we must always strive to be better. This is a collective responsibility that we all bear. Let us commit ourselves to this important work.

All the best,
Larry