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Gomes Lecture: The Research University in Contentious Times

Delivered at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, England

Thank you very much, Dame Fiona, for that very warm and generous introduction. My wife, Adele, and I have received the warmest of welcomes here at Emmanuel College. And being here—in this phenomenally special place—special not only to each and every one of you, but also to all of us at Harvard—is extraordinarily meaningful. I’m deeply grateful for your invitation and for the opportunity to become a member of the Emmanuel community and an honorary fellow. Thank you very much.

Let me also note that it is wonderful to have a chance to return to Cambridge, where I was pleased to work with then-Sir Alec, now Lord Broers, to try and bring two institutions—one from the old Cambridge, one from the new Cambridge—even closer together. It is a delight to be here.

And a special delight because this lecture was made possible through the generosity of the Rossanos—also wonderful citizens of both Emmanuel and Harvard.

It’s quite a thrill to address you all this evening, and I want to take a moment to give credit where credit is really due. My appearance here this evening was really secured 382 years ago upon the untimely demise of one of your celebrated sons, a young man who gave his books, his assets, and—unbeknownst to him—his name to a fledgling institution of learning in the New World.

Each year, thousands and thousands of pilgrims seeking good luck—and also good selfies—make their way past my office in search of this young man’s statue, which is among the most photographed statues in the United States. But, like the stained-glass window I had the privilege of seeing today in your campus chapel, the statue offers only an imagined face. All true likenesses of your alumnus and our benefactor were consumed by fire more than 250 years ago. What we do know for sure is that he endured great suffering—losing all but his mother and his brother to the plague—before studying here, taking two degrees at Emmanuel, and eventually setting sail for the shores of New England.

Imagine, for a moment, the depth of his despair, the intensity of his journey, the uncertainty of his prospects. Here was a person who nurtured deep conviction, a person who endured great hardship and summoned great courage, a person who traveled to an unknown wilderness for the promise of freedom—and the possibility of a better life. He perished before he could thrive, but his generosity ensured the survival of what would ultimately become an extraordinary institution of higher education.

None of us should forget that John Harvard was an immigrant. And he helped to make America great before there even was an America.

We Americans have begun to question the value of embracing people who seek a better life in our country, who seek opportunities that we have, in the past, routinely provided for the most talented individuals no matter where they were born. What was once a strong commitment to academic exchange is being eroded by a visa and immigration process that often treats international students and international scholars with scrutiny and suspicion, if not outright disdain and distrust. As a result of the disruptions and delays, talented women and men from around the world are reconsidering their decisions to join our college and university communities. Now, let me be clear, national security is a legitimate concern, but I believe we must be wary of policy that undercuts the strength of the very institutions that make coming to the United States worthwhile.

These are contentious times, and I hope you will permit me to continue to speak plainly—even frankly—about them. The insularity I have described is, I believe, the symptom of a much larger problem in my country, and, as I have learned, in this country as well. Much of our public discourse has become dysfunctional and coarse. Division and derision rule, and scorched earth is far more common than common ground. It feels as though we are always on the brink of some shift that will send the whole democratic experiment reeling toward chaos, toppling the foundations on which our society rests.

And I—for the record—am widely considered an optimist.

This is, of course, not the first time in our history and certainly not the first time in my lifetime that there’s been considerable unease and unrest on college campuses in the United States. When I began college in 1969—fifty years ago this past fall—my classmates were busying themselves with bullhorns, marching and chanting in protest of the Vietnam War. Less than a year before my arrival at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a freshman, University Hall at Harvard—just two stops down the road from MIT on the subway—had been occupied by demonstrators who were protesting against the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, a program that would enroll college students and ultimately commission them as officers in the armed services. The protestors at that time forcibly removed administrators and were, in turn, forcibly removed by police at the behest of the University president, a decision that shocked and galvanized the campus community. In the spring of my sophomore year, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University—four stops from MIT and an institution that I, as Fiona mentioned, ultimately led—was firebombed, destroying the dean’s office and damaging part of the school’s library. And those, of course, were only the events that occurred locally. In between those two events, four students were killed on the Kent State campus by the National Guard, a tragedy that devastated our country and curtailed the academic year at many institutions—Harvard, MIT, and Tufts among them.

It was an interesting time to come of age in the United States. At stake were the lives of our family and friends, of our neighbors and acquaintances—of people we would never meet but whose suffering felt as urgent as our own. Colleges and universities at that time may have been the sites of student organizing and protest, but the institutions actually were not the ultimate targets. They were merely the springboard from which students launched their efforts—some of them unfortunately misguided, some of them truly, unfortunately violent—to demand change from a government prosecuting a war that many of us felt was wrong and unjust.

I think now about how carefully leaders of higher education institutions in the United States had to tread in those days. There were missteps, that much is certain, but prudent decisions in the face of controversy also sustained and strengthened colleges and universities. In my own career—including 24 years on the faculty at MIT, and ten years as president of Tufts, and now almost two years as president of Harvard—I’ve come to know the many ways in which the days of my youth actually made those institutions I hold dear more adaptable and more resilient than they might have been otherwise.

Today, college and university presidents in the United States are facing a set of challenges that actually feels quite similar to what our predecessors faced half a century ago. Our students are organizing and protesting. This time it’s not about war. This time it’s about climate change; it’s about inequality; it’s about sexual assault and harassment—it’s against a whole host of structures and systems that jeopardize the possibility of a future that they believe might be far more just. Their earnestness and their passion have infused our campuses with an urgency that reminds me of my own undergraduate years. The difference, however, is that their ire is often directed inward, and some expect—and increasingly demand—that our institution act in ways that I fear may ultimately put us in tension with the essential values we represent to the world.

At the same time that our students are demanding more of us, society is as well. At a time when populism is on the rise throughout the world, universities are being criticized as being elitist, as being politically correct, and in some cases out of touch with the broader society.

So, I would like to ask: What is our role in such contentious times?

The Reverend Professor Peter Gomes, in whose name we gather today, was an expert on reflecting on a moment and elevating that moment so that its essence—its truth—might become clear to all of us. In a sermon on patriotism, he had something quite provocative to say about freedom. It is not, he remarked, “a once-and-for-all enterprise. It is the constant renewal, reformation, and extension of freedom carried out by many people over many years under many circumstances that is really to be celebrated and contemplated, with the end and purpose of freedom in mind—in the words of the framers [of the Constitution of the United States], ‘the enjoyment of domestic tranquility.’”

In every era—and especially in those that are less than tranquil—universities everywhere, I believe, must stand for freedom. We embrace the notion of its “constant renewal, reformation, and extension” in every aspect of our teaching and our scholarship. Every question asked and answered on our campuses, every answer that is scrutinized and reconsidered is in itself an act of freedom—freedom to explore, to discover, freedom to create branches of knowledge even as we graft and prune away others.

And when those branches of knowledge bear fruit, we are all enriched. In medicine and in public health, the yields are self-evident—pain’s avoidance and death’s delay—longer and better lives lived in healthier and stronger communities. Science solves the mysteries of the body even as it opens doors to understanding our world—from the smallest speck of matter to the farthest reaches of the universe. Engineering invents and innovates; business speeds exchange of ideas and goods and people throughout our economy; education enables individual success and transforms communities; and the study of government and of law improves our societies.

There are those who end their list there, those who value only utility and consider the rest of intellectual endeavor mere ornament. But I think we must ask: What is the purpose of a life lengthened by medicine and enriched by commerce and technology, among other things, if it is lived without art, without literature, and without music? Whither civilization without the study of history or language, philosophy or religion? The fruits of the humanities are the most enduring of human endeavor, and the intellectual traditions that they have generated have been—and will continue to be—sources of comfort and wisdom in challenging and contentious times.

Consider, for example, the advancing tide of automation and the role it may play in widening the already yawning gap between the rich and the poor. Robots are already replacing manufacturing jobs at increasing rates, and artificial intelligence threatens to displace more—and more varied—jobs in the future. These advances have implications for business, engineering, and economics, but they also provoke I believe lines of inquiry about the very nature and necessity of both life and work. In a world in which more and more decisions are made by machines, what does it really mean to be human? Efforts to understand and navigate a future very unlike the present will depend at least as much on critical thinking rooted in the humanities as on technological ability rooted elsewhere. At Harvard, we’re beginning to address this eventuality with a number of initiatives, one of which embeds ethicists in computer science classes. Their job is to raise the questions about the fairness of algorithms, about the implications of the code that our students are writing, so that those students will understand the implications of their work as they proceed.

At the same time, we’re also using technology to try to improve access to our educational resources. EdX, our joint online learning platform created in partnership with MIT, is opening opportunities to some 24 million learners in 196 countries. The most popular course on EdX is one that’s taught at Harvard. It’s our introductory computer science course, CS50, which gives people a chance to learn programming languages, which are no less important today than Latin was in days long past. I think our obligation, one of our obligations, in these contentious times is not only to invent the future, but also to ensure that the individuals who will inhabit that future are equipped with the skills, the tools, and the sensitivities to navigate it in an intelligent way.

Given the depth and breadth and expertise of research universities, it’s no wonder that people look to us for explanations and for leadership in contentious times. They look to us to surmount the insurmountable, expecting, perhaps, too much of us on certain issues. Universities alone cannot solve the climate crisis. Universities alone cannot solve the problem of inequality. Universities alone cannot cure the host of ills that keep people up at night and make them worry about their children and worry about the future of their children’s children.

But what can we do? We can offer insight into the causes and costs of climate change; we can model the behaviors—both individual and institutional—that preserve and protect our environment even as we identify effective strategies for mitigation and adaptation. To address inequality, we can champion education and encourage leadership in education; we can develop partnerships that strengthen primary and secondary schools; and we can scrutinize the economic, political, and social structures that impede economic and social mobility. Moreover, we can also reflect on how institutions like Harvard and like Cambridge either create new paths for mobility and economic opportunity or, consciously or unconsciously, simply reinforce existing privilege.

With these and other topics, I think we must rise above the din of the world, not to speak with one voice but rather to amplify all voices, to welcome views and opinions as varied as the individuals who comprise our communities. We must strive to model the behavior that we would hope to see in the rest of the world. For if we cannot talk about the issues that divide us, if we cannot have difficult conversations on these beautiful campuses that we inhabit, where everyone is smart, where everyone is committed—if we can’t figure out how to do that at places like Cambridge and Harvard, there is no hope for the rest of the world.

I believe people look to us, to universities, with trust and with hope, especially in these contentious times, because we still represent the best of humanity. One of my predecessors, Nathan Pusey, who presided over Harvard during the difficult times of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the height of student activism, beautifully articulated the value of research universities when prospects are dim, sentiments I shared with the Harvard community at the start of this academic year. Let me quote him:

“In the complex and confused world in which we all find ourselves, 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.”

We may not be able to solve every problem, but the people will continue to look to us with trust and with hope, especially as other institutions fail them. We must honor that trust and that hope by demonstrating what knowledge can help us achieve and by communicating our great strength and our great value to as broad an audience as possible.

In this effort, we are inspired and guided by President Pusey’s faith in our mission and by the good Reverend Gomes’s belief that freedom can be reformed, can be improved. Our notion of academic freedom must now encompass the rigorous defense of objective facts. The groundwork on which knowledge is built is being undermined, and those of us who care about higher education—about all education—must do more to confront those who seek to sow confusion and reap the fruits of ignorance. Head shaking and hand wringing within our communities has gone on far too long. It’s time to speak up, and I believe it’s time to act. Facts are apolitical. Their defense is not a political act. I believe it is a moral obligation—one shared by every person on our campuses and on the campuses of colleges and universities around the world.

Facts and truth are of course not the same, and we must be careful to define and honor the distinction. Research universities—and the universities we create and nurture—do not have a monopoly on truth. We must be willing to consider where our opinions begin to encroach on our knowledge, and we must be willing to have our truth tested on the anvil of opposing explanations and ideas. How do we ensure that the freedom to ask and answer, the freedom to criticize and confront—the freedom even to argue—is extended to as many people as possible? I think the answer is quite simple: We listen. We must listen generously and embrace fully the challenge of being quick to understand and slow to judge.

While we can and must stand for facts, we also must be careful not to be drawn into overtly political debates. We must be committed to the search for truth, and we cannot and should not endorse positions on which reasonable people can differ. When we do so, we bring debate to an end by endorsing one position over another. And the function of the university is to encourage debate, not to quash it, and I would tell you that the function of the university leaders is to fulfill that responsibility. We must be—more than anything else—stewards of our institutions’ values. To do otherwise risks politicizing the university, and, in the process, jeopardizing the public support and public trust on which we all depend.

At a time of rising populism worldwide, of skepticism of elites—and of elite institutions—universities are criticized for being islands, for leaning left, for being politically correct and intolerant of some ideas. These perceptions—to which we must admit, if we are honest, that there is a kernel of truth—are only driven and amplified by technology that disintermediates the editorial function, allowing anybody to publish his or her own view of events of the world. Our fragmented media struggle to make the distinction between opinion and facts. The result, often, is a feverish diffusion of rumor, fantasy, and emotion unconstrained by reason or reality—misinformation and disinformation presented alongside the genuine article.

It’s now entirely possible to fortify one’s own view of the world by disregarding contrary information and perspectives, even shunning those individuals who think differently—or, in the language of this generation, cancelling those who espouse views which we find offensive. Or in some cases even shouting them down, threatening them, bullying them—as I have read has occurred recently at an institution not far from here. Our communities must resist that urge. We must welcome and embrace those who disagree with us, and we must be wary of the dangers of moral certitude. On this point, I am fond of paraphrasing the great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who said: It is always wise to look for the truth in our opponents’ error, and the error in our own truth.

This is not to say that the arguments of some members of our community, who are out there criticizing or protesting, that their arguments are without merit. Our students have every right to be angry about the world they will inherit—and I would rather address their anger than bemoan their apathy—but they also have a responsibility as educated people to face the realities of that same world. To them, civility may feel like an antiquated notion, but it offers a well-worn path to overturning conventional wisdom and making meaningful and lasting change. The same is true of questioning institutions of government responsible for public policy and holding them—and elected officials—accountable. I hope to see more of both in the decade to come—not because I yearn for bygone days, when things were easier and quieter and more civil, but because I believe our future actually depends upon decency, our future depends upon civil discourse, and our future also depends upon our helping our students understand that sometimes the best way to bring about change, especially change that is directed at the government, is to exercise their rights at the ballot box.

The renewal, reformation, and extension of freedom: this really is our shared enterprise. We work toward these ends not only to honor the promise of higher education but also, I believe, to serve and advance the principles of democracy. Universities must take seriously the work of preparing young people for lives of citizenship. Liberal education offers a strong foundation for adulthood in a rapidly changing world. I remind people that the original notion of a liberal education was to educate citizens for a democracy. We must never lose sight of that goal. It imparts skills that make navigating this new, difficult, challenging, fractious world possible—even, dare I say, enjoyable—and, at best, it emboldens people to fully engage in the issues of the day and create opportunity for others. Much is rightly expected of those to whom much has accrued.

People around the world look to institutions like ours because we have earned their confidence and their respect over hundreds and hundreds of years. We ought to do all that we can do to maintain both, especially in these contentious times, especially when we are all seeking a bit more tranquility—whether domestic or otherwise. That is an end worth contemplating and celebrating as we enter this new decade together. And if, by chance, we should find ourselves frustrated in the years ahead, I think we would do well to remember the wisdom offered by Professor Peter Gomes regarding patience and persistence. “We may not be able to make an end,” he said, “but…we are enabled to make a beginning, and that is no small thing.”

I want to thank you for inviting me here today and for giving me an opportunity to honor a great citizen of Harvard and of Emmanuel—a great citizen of the world—an opportunity to reinforce the enduring bond that ties our two institutions together and to engage in a conversation with each of you, which I hope will now continue, over what we as ancient and honorable institutions can contribute to society in these contentious times. Thank you.