Harvard President Bacow’s Speech to Peking University

Lawrence Bacow:

Turning to the role and values of higher education, Bacow then drew upon his Harvard installation address, last October, emphasizing that universities are venues for pursuing the hard work of finding the truth, by airing the most diverse opinions and insisting on excellence and opportunity. Lest anyone doubt that those principles have practical meaning, he said:

I have been president of Harvard for less than a year. In that short span of time, no less than half a dozen controversial issues have arisen on our campus, generating impassioned discussions—and even some spirited arguments and public protests—among students, faculty, and staff, as well as alumni and friends of the University. Such arguments can cause discomfort. But they are signs of a healthy community and of active and engaged citizenship. In fact, it would be unusual and, frankly, unsettling if a semester went by without any episode of disagreement. When conflict does arise, it forces us to ask: What kind of community do we want to be? And that question sustains and strengthens us—and enriches our search for truth.

In many circumstances, my role as president is not to define the “correct” position of the University but to keep the channels of discussion open. From a distance, Harvard can appear to be a place that speaks in one voice. It is, in fact, a place of many voices. And one of the most important—and most difficult—of our tasks is to ensure that all members of the community feel empowered to speak their minds.

Given current conditions in China, particularly during this year of politically charged anniversaries, many members of the Peking University community may recognize the principles Bacow elaborated more than they can now enjoy their own scope for local action, even on their country’s campuses.

He closed with a call both for continued scholarly ties between Harvard and Beida (and by implication their countries), and a resonant invocation of the spirit of intellectual exploration in a verse by the late Abdurehim Ötkür:

Along life’s road I have always sought truth,
In the search for verity, thought was always my guide.
My heart yearned without end for a chance of expression,
And longed to find words of meaning and grace.
Come, my friends, let our dialogue joyfully begin.