‘Tone-deaf’: Harvard President Lawrence Bacow sorry for comparing wealthy donors to slaves

Written by on September 30, 2019

iStock/janniswerner(BOSTON) — The president of Harvard University has apologized for giving a speech in which he compared rich alumni donors to freed slaves.

Harvard President Lawrence Bacow was slammed as “tone-deaf” and “inappropriate” by some of those who heard him make the analogy that rich alumni should be free to spread their wealth around instead of always feeling bound to giving to schools at the Ivy League institution they have an affiliation with.

In a speech on Tuesday to hundreds of members of the Cambridge, Massachusetts, school’s alumni relations and fundraising staff, Bacow used the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in America in 1865, to suggest that Harvard’s 12 individual schools no longer own their wealthy graduates, according to the Boston Globe, which first reported on the comments.

“I regret that these comments caused offense. That certainly was not my intent,” Bacow wrote in a message emailed on Saturday morning to the university’s alumni relations and development staff.

Bacow referenced the 13th Amendment in response to a question about “The Harvard Campaign” — a concept adopted by his predecessor, Drew Faust, as part of a university-wide fundraising effort to encourage donors to give to schools they have no connection to.

Some schools, such as Harvard Business School, receive an abundance of donations from rich alumni who work on Wall Street or Silicon Valley, while other schools, such the Graduate School of Education, have alumni who go into teaching or work in the nonprofit sector and have less money to donate.

Bacow said he now realizes his ill-advised analogy left some attendees feeling “unsettled.”

“I hoped to convey my belief that our collective job is to help our donors achieve their philanthropic objectives, which might include supporting activities in schools where they enjoyed no prior affiliation,” Bacow said in his email.

Bacow, who was appointed president of Harvard in July 2018, said he plans to turn the controversy into a teachable moment.

“People, appropriately, have high expectations for their leaders and their choice of language,” Bacow said in his email. “In fact, you have high expectations for me as your president. I promise to learn from this experience.”

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