When I speak with new Harvard College students each autumn, I remind them that our campus is the most cosmopolitan environment in which many of them will ever live. The university community comprises people of different races, religions, ethnicities and nationalities; of every gender identity and sexual orientation; of all political persuasions and socio-economic statuses.
Although commonplace, these words are meaningful and powerful. They describe individual lives – moments of history and experience, of success and failure, of inclusion and exclusion, of joy and sorrow – and underscore what binds us even as they illuminate what separates us. Bringing different people together and creating a community of belonging is an extraordinary aspiration, and we must not lose sight of its potential to change a complex world too often fractured by difference. This, too, is education.
I think of the students that I have met who have opened for their classmates windows to different worlds: an engineer-turned-teacher whose less-than-excellent high school education inspired her to step into a low-income classroom; a walk-on athlete and would-be lawyer who found and followed his passion for science and went on to receive a Rhodes Scholarship; a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps cadet who discovered curiosity and support where she expected indifference and judgement. A pair of room-mates – a first-generation American who watched his parents struggle to build a life in the United States and a native of Kenya who was raised according to the tribal traditions of his family – shared with me their excitement at having formed a lifelong friendship. A clean water expert at the World Bank explained to me how a flyer left on the counter of the fast-food restaurant where he worked led him to a Harvard admissions session at a local hotel in Texas and changed his future.
There are thousands of other such stories about lives shaped by being part of a community thoughtfully structured to encourage learning and exploration. Our students’ experiences are not the result of a haphazard assembly of talented individuals. At a moment when many young people could embrace the comfort of the familiar, we intentionally unsettle them. We speak about the values that guide how we work and live together, and encourage them to have open discussions about difference; we structure housing assignments to ensure that they are in daily contact with people unlike themselves. These aims are not incidental to teaching and learning. Diversity, inclusion and belonging are fundamental to Harvard’s mission and to higher education’s broader promise.
Our work is one step in a much longer journey. Education has made our nation possible; it is, as early 20th-century civil rights activist Nannie Helen Burroughs stated, democracy’s “life insurance”. American colleges and universities have shared in a revolution that has expanded citizenship, equality and opportunity. Earlier eras excluded women, blacks, Jews and other groups, limiting the social and economic mobility of entire segments of the population. Today, higher education seeks to serve the many, not the few. In 1940, 5 per cent of the population held a bachelor’s degree. Now that share has climbed to 33 per cent – a more than fivefold increase.
Harvard’s own transformation has accelerated in the past half century. In the late 1960s, the university began sustained efforts to identify and attract outstanding students who had hitherto been in a minority on campus: beginning in the 1970s, the percentage of women at Harvard College gradually increased from a quarter of the entering class to now roughly half. Today, one in five Harvard College students comes from a family that has an annual income of $65,000 (£49,000) or less and pays no parental contribution to tuition and room and board, and more than half of all Harvard undergraduates receive financial aid.
Harvard has steadily – although often painfully slowly – welcomed groups previously excluded from its faculty, staff and student body. But, as recent events here in the US and around the world remind us, much work remains to be done. To realise the community’s full promise, and to foster the personal and intellectual transformation at the heart of our mission, we must also work affirmatively and collectively to do more than simply assemble and support a diverse class.
We must advance a culture of belonging – one in which every student finds and feels Harvard’s opportunities fully available. This requires openness to change, as well as a willingness to learn from and embrace difference in the spirit that defines a vibrant and respectful academic community.
At Harvard, a task force on diversity and belonging will begin work in the coming term to identify the demographic, cultural, organisational and social aspects of campus life that together constitute the experience of working and living in our community. Their observations and efforts will guide our actions in the years to come.
It is not enough for colleges and universities to bring people of varied backgrounds, cultures, races, identities, life experiences, perspectives, beliefs and values together. We must create communities in which every person has the opportunity to thrive. We must recognise that all our endeavours are enlarged and expanded by what we share.
The work ahead will not be easy. It will require a commitment to speaking thoughtfully and listening generously; it will require a willingness to try to see the world through others’ eyes; it will require, most of all, the ability – dishearteningly rare in recent years – of cultivating empathy, of articulating common concerns and of giving others the benefit of the doubt.
We must regard education as a right and an imperative, accessible regardless of fortunes or circumstance, and we must create environments in which all those seeking knowledge can do their best work and be their best selves.
President, Harvard University