The president of Harvard University this week reportedly used the 13th Amendment, which freed enslaved people, as a metaphor for starting to allow alumni to donate to any of the university’s colleges.
As the 13th Amendment banned slavery and involuntary servitude, Lawrence Bacow told the university’s alumni relations and fundraising staff Tuesday that donors no longer could be owned by the specific colleges from which they had graduated, the Boston Globe reported.
Some staff members at the meeting told the Globe they found the comparison “tone-deaf.”
The controversy for one of the nation’s top-ranked universities comes on the heels of another scandal: Harvard acknowledged this month that between 1998 and 2007 it accepted about $9 million from registered sex offender and financier Jeffrey Epstein, who died by suicide in August. The university vowed to direct some of the unspent money to organizations that combat human trafficking and sexual assault.
In an email about his 13th Amendment remarks sent Saturday to the alumni relations and development staff and shared with The Washington Post, Bacow said he knew some meeting attendees were “unsettled” by his comment and that he regretted causing offense.
“People, appropriately, have high expectations for their leaders and their choice of language,” Bacow wrote. “In fact, you have high expectations for me as your president. I promise to learn from this experience.”
Bacow wrote that although Harvard’s colleges historically have solicited donations solely from their own alumni, fundraising staff now should help donors give to colleges where they had no previous affiliation.
Some staff members who attended the meeting told the Globe they understood that Bacow’s original remark was meant to reference the colleges’ territorial nature about soliciting donations.
The comment, however, still struck a sour note at a university that has a history with slavery. Harvard previously has made efforts to recognize and atone for that history, including by posting a plaque to honor four people who were enslaved at the university in the 18th century. The university also hosted a conference in 2017 to explore the relationship between slavery and institutions of higher education.
The university under Bacow’s leadership has faced a high-profile lawsuit alleging the admissions staff discriminates against Asian American students by rating them poorly on their personalities and holding them to higher academic standards than other applicants, both white students and other minorities. A verdict in the federal trial has not been released.
Harvard, like many other colleges and universities, has made an effort to diversify its student body. Harvard’s most recently admitted class is 14 percent African American, according to university statistics.
When Bacow became president in 2018, he told the Associated Press that the university’s student body and faculty already had diversified significantly.
“I would also tell you that we have a ways to go to make sure that, having diversified our community, everybody feels like this is their Harvard, too,” Bacow told the AP. “Inclusion and belonging is important work for every institution, and it’s not enough that we recruit people here — it’s important that they can thrive here.”
But Harvard faced another race-related issue Thursday when a faculty member returned to her office and found a note on her door insulting her ethnicity and immigration status, university officials said.
The faculty member was walking with graduate students when she saw the note, which officials said also “challenged her right to be at Harvard and wished her ill.” The university has opened an investigation into the incident.
“We write to you now to state unequivocally that we condemn this hateful act and all forms of hate speech, and that we will answer attacks on members of our community with every resource at our disposal,” wrote Bacow and Claudine Gay, dean of the faculty of arts and sciences.
The officials did not name the faculty member and said they had declined to share more detailed information about the incident in an attempt to restore a sense of normalcy and security.