Last Friday, I went back to Harvard for the inauguration of Larry Bacow, the 29th president of Harvard University. Like delegates from around the nation representing their institution, I wanted to make sure that Elms College participated in this celebration of higher education. As the theme indicated, it was an occasion for Harvard to celebrate a new leader at the helm. But as Larry’s inaugural address demonstrated, this was a moment not just for this most venerable American institution of higher education, it was an assertion and a defense of American higher education in general.
“Higher education is among the most powerful forces for good” that our society possesses, he stated as he explained that it is more important now than ever to remind a skeptical public that colleges and universities represent truly a public good.
Larry Bacow’s inaugural speech reaffirmed the traditional role of colleges and universities as institutions which welcome immigrants with open arms. It reminded the audience that higher education, better than any other social mechanism, creates a path to social mobility, a road to individual as well as collective achievements. This is true now; and it was true at the time of the founding of Harvard and the nation given that “most of our founders were first generation college students,” Larry reminded the audience.
If Friday was a day of unity and celebration for all of us who believe in the search for knowledge, truth, excellence, and veritas, Saturday was a reminder of the sad state of division and rancor in our nation. Regardless of your political beliefs, there is no denying that the bitterly divisive episode of Brett Kavanugh’s confirmation to the US Supreme Court exposed once again undeniable fault lines among the American people and in American politics.
The testimonies of Professor Ford and Judge Kavanaugh served as a sort of Rorshack test for politicians. Rarely have we witnessed individuals seeing and hearing the same evidence and coming to such diametrically opposed conclusions, some of them wanting to have it both ways.
The people’s lack of trust in our democratic institutions may be the most potentially damaging long-term consequences of this unfortunate historical moment. And this is, once again, where higher education has a role to play. The academy must remain “a rehearsal space for democracy- a place where [we] learn to speak and listen with civility to peers whose perspective on the world differs from [our] own,” as stated so eloquently by Andrew DelBlanco. And our commitment to the rigorous search for facts and the systematic process to turn these facts into truth and knowledge should remain a hope for democracy.
In this endeavor, colleges and universities will continue to fulfill their historical role. As was stated at the inauguration of the 29th president of Harvard, “higher education has not only supported our democracy, it has created it.”