Dear Harvard College Students,
With the summer days waning and move-in day swiftly approaching, I know you are eager to immerse yourself in academic work and re-connect with each other. I look forward to having you back at Harvard.
As I prepare to welcome you back and to welcome all 1,650 members of the Class of 2023 to campus, I’ve been reflecting on the issues that captured our attention last year, both here at Harvard and beyond our gates. In particular I’ve been thinking about how we can advocate for change, both on-campus and more broadly, in a world where common ground so often seems elusive.
Last year at Harvard we saw robust debate about a variety issues, which we appreciate at an institution committed to pursuing knowledge and educating global citizens. When we gather to address difficult questions, we will often disagree. While I am proud that so many of you fiercely advocate for your beliefs, I am also concerned that sometimes on this campus we see those with differing opinions as undeserving of our attention, our respect, or our compassion. Hearing each other’s points of view, having our own assumptions challenged, and interrogating our values are experiences central to Harvard’s liberal arts and sciences education.
As scholars and citizens, we must be open to different ways of understanding, critical self-reflection and to changing our perspectives when new evidence and better arguments appear. The temptation to drown out ideas that make us uncomfortable can be strong. I have found the framework in the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences guidelines on free speech helpful because they acknowledge the tension between maintaining a civil and respectful campus and remaining open to a wide range of views, and discuss both individual rights and responsibilities in our context. Especially during this challenging moment in history, we need to be vigilant in ensuring no one is prevented from speaking or expressing any idea. Letting someone speak does not mean we condone what they are saying, and it does not absolve that person or group from consequences. And when we disagree, we have an obligation to respond earnestly. At the same time, we share the responsibility for making Harvard a community in which we interact with respect, integrity, and compassion.
As we begin this new academic year, I hope you will think about what kinds of interactions will help us continue to carve out a community that we’d like to live in, both here at Harvard and beyond. If we can find it in ourselves to engage with those we disagree with, and to care for others even when their beliefs may not be our own, we can light a path forward.
I look forward to working alongside you this year to build and sustain a community that acknowledges our present challenges, yet works toward our aspirations. In the spirit of our shared pursuit, I hope you will take the time to express your thoughts about what our community should look like and what we can do to create it. Please feel free to email me, visit my office hours or just stop me in the Yard or dining hall for a chat. I look forward to continuing this conversation on campus.
Danoff Dean of Harvard College