Harvard today is at a crossroads. What it does next will impact the rest of American higher education, the nation, and the world in many ways. President Bacow has announced that he is stepping down in June. A presidential search committee is looking for a successor. Much is at stake.
Harvard University has consistently ranked #1 in many global assessments of the world’s top universities. For generations it has sought—with the aid of a massive endowment—to be ‘the best in the world’ in as many fields as possible. Former Harvard College Dean Harry R. Lewis once noted that Harvard ”holds, in the public imagination, a distinctive pre-eminence.” True, but Harvard today has lost its way.
When Lewis was dean he said he once had had some difficulty in finding a university mission statement. He needed one in order to certify Harvard’s participation in the N.C.A.A. intercollegiate athletic program. “It turned out,” he wrote at the time, “that for 360 years Harvard College had never had a mission statement.” Lewis finally settled on Harvard’s Charter of 1650, a fundamental document in which Harvard committed itself “to the education of the English and Indian youth of this country, in knowledge and godliness….”
Even though Harvard long ago jettisoned the “godliness” portion of that document, the Charter of 1650 is more or less still in legal force today. Nevertheless, modern secular Harvard has always tried to keep its Puritan legacy at arm’s length. This was exemplified in 2017, when the university even held a contest to erase the Puritans from the former 1836 alma mater, “Fair Harvard,” expunging the words, “Till the stock of the Puritans die.”
Earlier, in 2007, the university barely acknowledged the 400th anniversary of the 1607 birth of its namesake, John Harvard, who willed half his fortune and library of around 400 volumes to the young college. We don’t know much about John Harvard (the famous statue in Harvard Yard is merely a representation). But one thing we do know is that he was a strong Christian. Given the titles in his library, we also know that he had a strong intellectual bent. He was clearly a man of vision and generosity. The university might at least have celebrated those qualities. But about all that Harvard University could officially muster at the time to mark the 400th anniversary of John Harvard’s birth was a display of copies of his books (all of John Harvard’s original library was lost in a fire in 1764), except for a 1634 edition of a book by John Downame, appropriately titled, The Christian Warfare against the Devil, World and Flesh.