Yesterday, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris participated in one of the foundational rituals of our democracy. In moments of war and peace, prosperity and hardship, the inauguration of a new administration has served, for more than two hundred years, not only as a demonstration of the continuity of leadership, but as a profound act of national renewal. However, yesterday’s speeches and oaths were witnessed not by cheering crowds, but by thousands of National Guard troops, a chilling reminder of just how much has changed in four years. While the Constitution has prevailed, the lies and rage that converged on the Capitol on January 6th persist as threats. As a new administration begins its term in the midst of a global pandemic and at a time of deep political division, we must take on the urgent work of repairing the beliefs, institutions, and commitments that underpin our democracy.
Harvard has a stake in this. Our community as we know it today, with its commitment to academic freedom and wide-ranging inquiry, could only exist in a democratic society. Knowledge can advance only when facts can be pursued outside of the framework of ideology. In a world where truth is only subjective, and fact is a matter of convenience, our mission of Veritas is imperiled. The health of our democracy matters for the work we do at Harvard, and so too does our work contribute directly and tangibly to the strength of our nation. In the pursuit of our teaching and research mission, we embrace and cultivate in our students the habits and norms essential to democratic citizenship, and we prepare future leaders with an understanding that they have a responsibility to make the world a better place. We are both stakeholder and steward, beneficiary and agent of the open society our democracy makes possible.
Strengthening the practices and commitments that serve as the fundamental conditions for a thriving democracy must be the focus of our teaching and research mission at this moment, recognizing that democracy is an active, collaborative process, with a role for individuals and for institutions. Through our teaching and research, we must reassert the importance of facts and evidence, the value of expertise, and the lived belief that comprehensive understanding can only be achieved through the engagement of a broad range of perspectives. We cannot be complacent or indifferent in the face of a destructive logic of partisan vengeance because we know it has consequences far beyond election outcomes. It erodes the consensus on democratic norms that enables academic excellence, as well as self-government.
We must recommit, in a deeper and more urgent way, to our role as agent and steward of the democratic way of life on which our mission relies. If we shrink from that role, we abandon our mission and risk consigning Harvard to irrelevance for the first time since our nation's founding.
As the former National Youth Poet Laureate and Harvard College graduate Amanda Gorman ‘20 brought into sharp focus in the moving poem she delivered at the inauguration:
“We've seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it,
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.
And this effort very nearly succeeded.
But while democracy can be periodically delayed,
It can never be permanently defeated.
In this truth, in this faith we trust.
For while we have our eyes on the future,
History has its eyes on us.”
Edgerley Family Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences