A message from Dean Douglas Elmendorf

To the HKS Community,

As you have seen in the email message from President Larry Bacow, the Presidential Committee on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery has just released its report. I hope you will read the report, and I encourage you to learn more about the Committee’s work and watch a video message from President Bacow.

The report lays out starkly the many terrible ways in which Harvard’s legacy is entwined with and built on the institution of slavery. The pain and suffering caused by key figures in Harvard’s past demand honest reflection on our parts today, as difficult as that may be. The report also urges us to seize Harvard’s present and future as an opportunity to undertake reparative actions—to use our “intellectual, reputational, and financial resources ... to remedy the harms of the University’s ties to slavery, just as past representatives of Harvard deployed these same resources and caused harm.” We must and will accept that opportunity and responsibility.

I am very grateful to Dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin, the chair of the Committee and dean of Harvard Radcliffe Institute, and to the other members of the Harvard-wide committee, including Professor Maya Sen and Professor William Julius Wilson from our faculty. The Committee’s careful research, thoughtful analysis, and frank conclusions represent a profound service to Harvard and to all of us who are beneficiaries of Harvard’s legacy.

My own initial reflections on the report are included below, followed by notes about some upcoming occasions for learning and reflection together. I and other leaders of the Kennedy School will gather in Nye ABC at 3:00 p.m. on Thursday (with no specific agenda in mind, just a desire to talk together), and Harvard Radcliffe Institute and the Harvard Office for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging will host important events as well. Please read the end of this message for specifics.

Looking Back

The report presents hard truths about Harvard’s operations and sources of wealth: “Harvard leaders, faculty, staff, and benefactors enslaved people, some of whom labored at the University; accrued wealth through the slave trade and slave labor; and defended the institution of slavery.” Later, some of Harvard’s intellectual activities “lent Harvard’s prestige to theories of racial hierarchy.” The report also draws our attention to the ways in which, “Through struggles against racial oppression and for human freedom, [Black Harvardians] created legacies of professional leadership and civic engagement, and they made profound legal and social changes.”

As I read the report, I thought about the people who were enslaved at Harvard—including Titus, Venus, Bilhah, and Juba, whose names are now recognized on the building in Harvard Yard where they labored—and about the many others enslaved at Harvard whose names we do not know. I thought also about the many enslaved people whose labor away from Harvard generated wealth that was foundational in building the University. Sickening harms were inflicted on them and their families, and shameful discrimination even after the official end of slavery has perpetuated those harms for many of their descendants to the present day. It is this legacy that we must now confront.

The disconnect between the ideals of Harvard and this part of the reality of Harvard struck me, as I imagine it will many of you. We are now brought to a reckoning with Harvard’s past that has been avoided for too long: We must acknowledge Harvard’s long connection to slavery and racial discrimination, and then shoulder our responsibilities for the present and the future.

Looking Ahead

The report explains: “The findings of this Committee ... not only reveal a chasm between the Harvard of the past and of the present but also point toward the work we must still undertake to live up to our highest ideals.” The report further states: “We must pursue not only truth, vital though that is, but also reconciliation. Doing so requires a range of actions—visible and continuing—that address the harms of slavery and its legacies, many of which still reverberate today, affecting descendants of slavery in the community and indeed the nation.”

Harvard must and will undertake meaningful reparative actions, as President Bacow and the Harvard Corporation have committed to. We at Harvard Kennedy School have important roles to play in this vital work. Our students, staff, faculty, and alumni are called to this effort by our fundamental moral obligation to serve others and by our mission to enable people to live in societies that are safer, freer, more just, and more sustainably prosperous. Moreover, we benefit in myriad ways from Harvard’s reputation and influence, which derive from the many positive parts of the University’s history—and therefore, we share responsibility for the negative parts of that history as well.

Our ongoing commitments at the Kennedy School to opposing racism and discrimination through public policy and leadership, supporting governance of Native nations, and advancing diversity, equity, and anti-racism are an outgrowth of our values and are fueled by our knowledge and skills. Our values compel us, and our knowledge and skills enable us, to do more. In the time ahead, we will work as a community to develop additional ways that we can act with others at Harvard to help dismantle the legacy of slavery and address racial discrimination at Harvard and across the nation and the world. The current conditions that we see around us are not immutable, and we and others who are committed to justice and have the capacity to make a difference should not accept those conditions.

Opportunities to Reflect Together

The report is deeply troubling and upsetting, and it challenges us to learn from the past in order to build a better future. The report may be especially heartrending for the descendants of people who were enslaved.

Reading the report and absorbing its findings and lessons may take some time, and charting our path forward together will take time as well. For now, there are several opportunities to reflect together, and I encourage you to participate in these events as your work schedules allow:

  • Harvard’s Office for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging will host a community gathering for “Reflecting on Harvard’s History and Legacy” on Thursday at 12:00 noon.
  • I and other leaders of the Kennedy School will gather in Malkin Penthouse on Thursday at 3:00 p.m. to be with each other and learn from each other. Please join us if you are interested.
  • Harvard Radcliffe Institute will hold a conference on “Telling the Truth about All This: Reckoning with Slavery and Its Legacies at Harvard and Beyond” on Friday from 9:15 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
  • Harvard has created a film connected to the report, which you can watch whenever you choose. To provide another opportunity for collective reflection, we will show the film in the Starr Auditorium next Wednesday at 5:00 p.m. and have time for discussion afterward.

I recognize that many of you will choose to reflect on this report alone or with friends. Please reach out for support as you need it.