November 23, 2014
Dear Harvard College Students,
On my daily walk from Cabot House to the Yard, I see the leaves changing color and falling from the trees. I am reminded of how the transition from autumn to winter gradually reveals a different landscape and allows me to appreciate parts of our campus that I did not notice before.
I have been inspired by these late autumn walks to see our community in a new light as well. In particular, I have been thinking about how much of our time at Harvard we spend engaged in the act of critiquing. We identify the problems we want to solve not only in our coursework, but also in our community and ourselves. We focus on work that has not yet been completed, on how what we have accomplished could have been done better, on whether it should have been done in another way entirely. Critiquing, when it means careful reasoning, deliberate inquiry, trying to improve an outcome, and questioning taken-for-granted assumptions, is one of the hallmarks of a good education. But unchecked, the habit of critiquing can narrow our vision so that we only see what is wrong in the world and blind ourselves to what is right. As Wesleyan's President Michael Roth suggested in an essay last summer, such a perspective creates cynicism and leads one to take on "the guise of the sophisticated (often ironic) spectator, rather than the messy participant in continuing experiments or even the reverent beholder of great cultural achievements."
With this in mind, I have resolved to make a conscious effort to reflect on what is right with our world. I see evidence of what is right on this campus every day—when I met the students at the Innovation Summit who set up an interactive poster board that asked "What would you do if you were not afraid?" and read all the dreams students have for themselves and the world; when I watch our varsity and intramural teams come together for a common goal; when I witness students transcend their differences to become lifelong friends or life partners; when I read the thoughtful Crimson articles in which students describe their ideas for improving our community culture; as students show their thirst for integrity and enhancing our academic culture by articulating what an Honor Code means to them; when I listen to panelists share their thoughts, experiences and courageous stories that help de-stigmatize mental health; and every time I hear a faculty or staff member discussing how we can best embody the values of our community. I am thankful to be part of a community that pushes each of us to stretch beyond what we thought was possible for ourselves and that holds us to such high standards. And I am grateful for all the ways that each of you lives up to the aspirations of this institution.
As we move past the excitement of yesterday's Harvard-Yale Game, we have just a few final weeks of a busy semester before we all have a much needed break to reflect and renew. Whether you are traveling a great distance, staying close to Cambridge, or remaining on campus for the holiday weekend, I want to wish you a safe and joyful respite.
You are all in my thoughts, and I am grateful to be sharing this journey with you.