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Harvard, founded by ‘stock of the Puritans,’ wants them gone from storied anthem

CAMBRIDGE MA - 9/10/2015: A tour group at Harvard University....Harvard issues new rules for tourists as people flock to Harvard Yard asking visitors to respect the privacy of it's students. (David L Ryan/Globe Staff Photo) SECTION: METRO TOPIC 11harvardyard

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File 2015

A tour group at Harvard University.

Since the mid-1800s, incoming Harvard University students and those bidding farewell to the college have celebrated together at commencements and other major events by singing “Fair Harvard,” a hymn known to sometimes bring its performers together, arm-in-arm, in a show of solidarity.

Now, Harvard is changing its tune and launching a contest that asks the university community to break with tradition by tweaking the revered alma mater. The goal is to replace the song’s final line, “Till the stock of the Puritans die,” with a phrase that is more inclusive and reflects the modern age.

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“We are looking for the best poetic expression that the Harvard community can offer,” said Danielle S. Allen, a professor in the department of government. “The only thing that is changing is that line.”

The contest, first reported by The Crimson, was announced by Allen on Wednesday during “The Afternoon of Engagement on Inclusion and Belonging,” a university-sponsored event at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre.

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The gathering, which brought together students, faculty, and staff, was part of a series of ongoing events headed by the Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging, an initiative launched by president Drew Faust in September to identify causes of academic, professional, and social isolation, and enact change.

Allen, co-chairwoman of the 53-person task force, said “Fair Harvard” was written in 1836, by alumnus Samuel Gilman. The song, composed for Harvard’s bicentennial, has since been stitched into the fabric of many celebratory affairs.

The final verse, in full, according to the school’s website reads:

Farewell! be thy destinies onward and bright!

To thy children the lesson still give,

With freedom to think, and with patience to bear,

And for Right ever bravely to live.

Let not moss-covered Error moor thee at its side,

As the world on Truth’s current glides by,

Be the herald of Light, and the bearer of Love,

Till the stock of the Puritans die.

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Allen said the point of the song is to highlight the commitment to the pursuit of truth. But the final line essentially makes the claim that achieving that goal is wholly linked to a specific ethnic group.

“The last few lines of the final verse do a wonderful job of connecting the student journey to the school’s mission,” she said. “But in fact, the pursuit of truth is for everybody.”

A statement on the website announcing the competition echoed that sentiment, saying it’s “time for a change.”

“The Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging launched this competition to affirm that Harvard’s motto, Veritas, speaks to and on behalf of all members of our community, regardless of background, identity, religious affiliation, or viewpoint,” the website says.

The deadline for the text-only submissions for the contest is Sept. 15. A winner will be announced in 2018.

The prize? Well, “Eternal fame and the enduring gratitude of your fellow members of the Harvard community,” according to the school.

A second component of the competition, Allen said, challenges the Harvard community to exercise its creativity, and come up with a new way to sing or perform “Fair Harvard,” whether it be through rap, spoken word, or a choral tune.

The “new musical variant” would be an “endorsed alternative” to the traditional hymn, but would not replace it at major events.

“Let’s see what the community puts out there,” Allen said. “Let’s take old things that we admire, and have some fun with them.”

The text-change to “Fair Harvard” won’t be the first time that the alma mater has been reexamined and revised to move away from Harvard’s days of yore.

In 1998, Allen said, following a similar contest, lyrics that read “Thy sons to thy jubilee throng” were ousted in favor of the line, “We join in thy jubilee throng.”

The move struck a gender balance — albeit one marked by criticism — that let female students know they, too, are a part of the community.

Allen hopes the new line that will be thrust into the closing text of “Fair Harvard” will similarly achieve that goal.

“A great line of poetry,” she said, “that really brings home in a stirring way the aspirations that the pursuit of truth is a project for all of us.”

Below are the full lyrics to “Fair Harvard”:

Fair Harvard! we join in thy Jubilee throng,

And with blessings surrender thee o’er

By these Festival-rites, from the Age that is past,

To the Age that is waiting before.

O Relic and Type of our ancestors’ worth,

That hast long kept their memory warm,

First flow’r of their wilderness! Star of their night!

Calm rising thro’ change and throv storm.

Farewell! be thy destinies onward and bright!

To thy children the lesson still give,

With freedom to think, and with patience to bear,

And for Right ever bravely to live.

Let not moss-covered Error moor thee at its side,

As the world on Truth’s current glides by,

Be the herald of Light, and the bearer of Love,

Till the stock of the Puritans die.

Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.
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