A Welcome Message from Larry Bacow

Dear Members of the Harvard Community,

I hope that the summer has provided you with many opportunities for reflection and relaxation—and that, like me, you are eager to begin a new academic year together. Some of my reading this summer took me deeper into Harvard’s history by way of personal anecdotes and recollections, and I wanted to share with you an observation about the role of the University made in 1957 by my predecessor Nathan Pusey.

“In the complex and confused world in which we all find ourselves,” he wrote, “it is possible to think of Harvard as a kind of island of light in a very widespread darkness, and I must confess I sometimes do just this. But I also know that the figure is not really an apt one, for Harvard has never been an island severed from the broad concerns of men and is certainly not one now. Instead, it is rather intimately involved in the complex culture to which it belongs. Its distinction is that [here] intellectual activity has an opportunity to come into sharper focus, and so becomes richer, more vivid, more convincing, and more captivating than in society at large.”

I recall these words today with a sense of urgency and concern. Since May, the obstacles facing individuals ensnared in the nation’s visa and immigration process have only grown. Various international students and scholars eager to establish lives here on our campus find themselves the subject of scrutiny and suspicion in the name of national security, and they are reconsidering the value of joining our community in the face of disruptions and delays. I recently traveled to Washington to share my thoughts with members of Congress, and I also sent a letter to the Secretary of State and the Acting Secretary of Homeland Security to express my concerns about the lasting effects the treatment of our friends and colleagues, here at Harvard and elsewhere, will have on the strength of our academic enterprise and on long-term American competitiveness. As our policy makers fulfill their necessary obligation to weigh issues of national security, I profoundly hope they will do so with full recognition of the ways that our country’s universities greatly benefit from the presence and participation of talented people from around the world, and the ways that U.S. national interests are served by a system of higher education whose strength rests on a willingness to transcend barriers, not erect them.

There is something even more significant at stake than the composition of our university community. Although our nation to this day still struggles to make good on its founding ideals, countless people from different parts of the world have long looked to its shores with hope—for the chance to learn, for the chance to contribute, for the chance to live better and safer lives. My father and my mother were two of them, and they taught me that this country is great because it opens its doors wide to the world.

Not just as a university president, but as the son of refugees and as a citizen who deeply believes in the American dream, I am disheartened by aspects of the proposed new criteria for people seeking to enter our country. They privilege those who are already educated, who already speak English, and who already have demonstrable skills. They fail to recognize others who yearn for a better future and who are willing to sacrifice and work hard to achieve it. Had these same rules been in place when my parents each immigrated, I doubt they would have been admitted, and I would not be writing this message today.

My parents, like most immigrants, loved this country in part because they had the experience of growing up someplace else. They appreciated its aspirations of freedom and opportunity for all, and never took these ideals for granted. But they were also not uncritical of their new home. They wanted it to be the very best place it could be, a goal to which we all should aspire. Indeed, it is the role of great universities to foster an environment that encourages loving criticism of our country and our world. Through our scholarship and education, through our encouragement of free inquiry and debate, we ask not just why things are as they are, but how they might be better. To be a patriot is also to be a critic and not to accept the status quo as inevitable.

The new academic year is a chance for all of us to commit ourselves to creating a community that welcomes and embraces people from across the nation and around the world, people whose distinctive voices and varied experiences are essential to our common endeavor. Veritas guides our teaching and our research—it also evokes our identity as a human community and our obligation to the society we serve. We must seek truth and share truth. We must never lose sight of our ability to captivate and convince, to provide knowledge that is rich and vivid—knowledge that is capable of changing minds as well as hearts.

Harvard is, indeed, no island. We must devote ourselves to the work of illuminating the world through word and deed, and we must continue to affirm and safeguard the values that underlie the finest traditions of this extraordinary nation, especially in turbulent times. I hope you will take up that important work with me in the coming months. In the meantime, to our new students, welcome, and to the rest of you, welcome back—and Godspeed.

All the best,
Larry