Open letter to Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow

On 15 November, the Harvard Alumni Association organized a Zoom event open to members around the world entitled “A Conversation with President Bacow.”  I take my hat off to Philip Lovejoy, head of the HAA, for this outreach to the global community.

I comment below on the main points in the President’s message which raise serious questions about the aspirations as well as the foibles, illusions and misdeeds of America’s Liberal elites.

Mr. President,

Many thanks for your warm and informative talk on Zoom.  You are very much the leader I wish we had back in 1963-67 when I came through Harvard College.

I particularly welcomed your remarks on freedom of speech on campus, and on how Veritas is arrived at precisely by the clash of divergent opinions in a mutually respectful setting.  Regrettably my own experience of Harvard in the past several years in the area of my expertise, international relations with an accent on Russia, does not indicate that  your tolerance for those with different points of view is shared by colleagues in the professorial ranks.  They stand shoulder to shoulder over their reading of the “Putin regime” and in support of the hard line, aggressive and ultimately very risky stance that the United States has as promoter of a New Cold War to defend democratic values and the maintenance of its global hegemony. 

Efforts by my fellow “dissidents,” in particular the late Professor Stephen Cohen, to arrange round table discussions at the Kennedy School and elsewhere on campus (we dared not mention the word “debates”) on the Russia policy came to nought. We were snubbed. Thus, on the Harvard campus, just as in Washington, D.C. and throughout the country’s foreign policy establishment there is no open questioning of official policy on an existential question before the nation.

You spoke of Climate Change as the issue facing our civilization.  I beg to differ. If we keep on track with the demonization of our nuclear peer, Russia, and of the up and coming nuclear power China, if we bait them daily as our armed forces are now doing at their borders, we will be damned lucky to make it to 2030 not to mention 2050 and the carbon neutral world.

I also bring to your attention another take on the rising presence of foreign students in Harvard College and graduate schools about which your administration is clearly proud.  Do they make the campus more cosmopolitan and questioning of U.S. conventional wisdom about the world? or are they just another form of Davos Culture, meaning representative of the tiny minority across the 200 nations worldwide who are drawn to American life style and values but are distant from their compatriots.  Doesn’t such recruitment amount to the latest form of  cooptation, which had in the past brought in Jews and people of color from the domestic population and then Chinese and other Asians from abroad?  Are these students challenging Harvard and shaking it from its conceits?  or are they just trying hard to fit in and move along?  Wouldn’t more be achieved by sending Harvard students abroad on study programs? My own experience of the latter type was life changing: I have in mind the Sheldon Traveling Fellowship which the College conferred on me at graduation, enabling me to spend an academic year living in a dozen countries across Europe from France and the UK in the West to Russia in the East with the sole obligation to send back reports of my progress regularly.

Finally, I come to your remarks about the value of a liberal education in today’s technocratic and Covid-changed world.  I share your enthusiasm entirely. And your mentioning the views of the CEOs of major corporations who value candidates with top writing, reasoning and speaking skills versus the views of their own entry level recruitment officers fishing for narrow technical skills are surely relevant to the debate.  However, I ask how many Harvard College graduates will be entering large corporations after graduation.  I hazard the guess:  very few. Four years ago when I went to my 50th College Reunion I heard Joe Biden say in his talk to the senior class that less than 5% of graduates were going into government, which is just another large hierarchy, That confirmed what I had observed over decades of reading class books issued every five years by alumni:  almost none of my peers went into large corporations or other big entities.  They entered law firms or started their own businesses.  They were never “team players.” Tney were always too smart for that.  And I have to be persuaded that I am wrong about present day College students, who are chosen first and foremost for their IQ.

Notwithstanding these reservations, I greatly appreciated your outreach and your sincerity and  your thoughts about the real issues facing higher education today.

with best wishes

Gilbert Doctorow, College ’67