Larry Bacow’s message to the Harvard community encouraged them to “act on your beliefs,” but he was met with some criticism from students.
Lawrence “Larry” Bacow, Harvard University’s president and Jewish Pontiac native, wrote an email to the Harvard community on May 30 mentioning the police killing of George Floyd and sharing his “beliefs.” However, he received backlash from the Harvard community, some of whom believed he did not go far enough in addressing issues of racial injustice.
Bacow’s statement began with acknowledging “the senseless killing of yet another black person—George Floyd—at the hands of those charged with protecting us.”
“I cannot help but think back to 1968, the spring of my junior year in high school. First, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, then Bobby Kennedy,” Bacow’s statement read. “Riots broke out in nearby Detroit, as they did across the country. Then, like now, our nation was hugely polarized, and we desperately struggled to find common ground that might unite us.”
Bacow mentioned that “it seemed difficult to imagine how we would move forward, but we did,” and applies that message to what is happening throughout the country today.
“I believe that our strength as a nation is due in no small measure to our tradition of welcoming those who come to our shores in search of freedom and opportunity, individuals who repay us multiple times over through their hard work, creativity, and devotion to their new home,” he wrote. “I believe that no person is above the law regardless of the office they hold or the uniform they wear. Those who break the law must be held accountable.”
Bacow mentioned eleven such “beliefs” and then concluded his letter by encouraging the community to look inside themselves.
“I hope you will pause during these troubled times to ask what you believe. Even more importantly, I hope you will find the strength and determination to act on your beliefs—to repair and perfect this imperfect world,” his statement read. “Those of us privileged to work or study at a place like this bear special responsibilities. As Luke teaches us, from those to whom much is given, much is expected.”
His letter has received criticism on Twitter from some students. One student, with the Twitter handle @polumechanos, wrote, “As a black graduate student at Harvard, I really urge the President’s Office to consider how this message misses the mark for so many students of color, especially black students. We deserve better than this litany of platitudes.”
Another tweet, from a user named David, read, “If you’re going to send a letter about values, take a meaningful stand or delve in the complexity we face. This statement, sadly, says nothing.”
Bacow took over as Harvard president in July 2018. Throughout his life, Bacow has taken his Jewish and Detroit roots with him and ensures that everyone knows how proud he is of his heritage.
“I am who I am,” Bacow told the JN during an interview in 2018. “There is a lot of richness in our Jewish teachings that goes to important issues of values. I have spent a lot of time in my life talking to students. I learn from all people. I have learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues and most from my students. We can learn from anyone; it’s important to understand that.”
Bacow carries his Jewish values that his parents instilled in him wherever he goes. According to the JN’s coverage of him in 2018, Bacow often “references the Talmud when he delivers speeches” and “talks about the concept of tikkun olam or repairing the world.”
For this story, Bacow was not available for an interview with the JN. In a message from him on March 24, he announced to the Harvard community that both him and his wife, Adele, had tested positive for COVID-19. As of April 12, Bacow told the community that him and Adele were doing well and regaining their strength.