Harvard president Larry Bacow apologized Saturday for comments he made last week comparing the 13th Amendment, which freed the slaves, to the university’s relationship with wealthy donors.
Bacow said he understands that his comments may have “unsettled” some Harvard staff members.
“I regret that these comments caused offense,” Bacow said in an internal e-mail. “That certainly was not my intent.”
Bacow had suggested Tuesday that just as the 13th Amendment banned the ownership of African-Americans, Harvard’s individual schools could no longer “own” their specific wealthy graduates, according to those who attended the meeting at the Sanders Theater on campus.
The episode comes at a time when universities such as Harvard and MIT are grappling with the moral questions that arise from their fund-raising — questions including whom to take money from, in the wake of revelations about their entanglements with convicted child predator Jeffrey Epstein.
Bacow made his comments during a gathering of hundreds of staff members from Harvard’s alumni relations and fund-raising departments.
According to those who attended, Bacow used the 13th Amendment analogy in response to a question about the university’s One Harvard fund-raising campaign, which encourages alumni to give money even to schools where they may not have any prior affiliation.
Bacow recounted how he had spoken with the law school dean about the meaning of the 13th Amendment and that it abolished the ownership of people. Likewise, Bacow said, Harvard’s individual schools couldn’t “own” their wealthy alumni, which could disadvantage schools that focus on graduating public servants and nonprofit leaders, according to those at the meeting.
But Bacow’s invocation of slavery and its abolition to discuss fund-raising at Harvard struck some at the meeting as “tone deaf.”
“This was not an appropriate comparison,” said one staff member who attended the meeting but declined to provide her name over concerns for her job.
The suggestion that wealthy donors are oppressed, as slaves were, by Harvard’s fund-raising apparatus is “quite ridiculous,” said Chad Williams, the chairman of the African and African American Studies department at Brandeis University.
“The comparison is very poor at best,” he said.
Harvard has been reckoning with its past involvement with slavery in recent years — an effort spearheaded by former president Drew Faust, a Civil War historian — and those efforts must continue, Williams said.
The 13th Amendment was ratified in 1865 to legally enshrine the end result of the Civil War and President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves.
Bacow’s “cavalier” reference to the 13th Amendment reflects lack of understanding sometimes by the general public that slavery wasn’t just about owning people, but also about brutality, subjugation, and controlling all aspects of their lives, said Manisha Sinha, an American history professor at the University of Connecticut who is currently a fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute.
“I’m really sorry that he displayed not just historical ignorance but a lack of understanding of the burden of slavery,” she said.
The 13th Amendment continues to resonate today. In 2016, director Ava DuVernay’s documentary, “13th,” focused on a loophole in the amendment that allowed for slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for crimes. DuVernay’s film suggests that after Reconstruction, some states exercised that loophole to jail black men and put them to use as prison labor, ultimately leading to the rampant incarceration of black men, who outnumber whites in the current prison population. At the end of 2017, federal and state prisons held about 475,900 black inmates and 436,500 white inmates, according to the Department of Justice.
The 13th Amendment, along with two others passed in the aftermath of the Civil War, “really made the country that we live in today,” Sinha said. “That we refer to these amendments in a cavalier way is unfortunate.”
Still, some at the Tuesday meeting said they understood that Bacow was not trying to be offensive in his comments, but instead was making an inside quip about the territorial nature of fund-raising among Harvard’s schools.
Harvard’s 12 separate schools and an institute have their own fund-raising and alumni relations staff that have traditionally held onto their own donors. But that can mean some schools are better funded for student financial aid and programs than others.
In his e-mail on Saturday, Bacow noted that the university’s most recent capital campaign resulted in 30 percent of alumni gifts going to schools other than those from which the donors received their degree.
Bacow said he wanted to encourage the university’s fund-raising officials to help donors who may be interested in giving to schools where they had no prior affiliation.
But Bacow in his e-mail acknowledged that he had disappointed some staff by his comments.
“People, appropriately, have high expectations for their leaders and their choice of language,” Bacow said “In fact, you have high expectations for me as your president. I promise to learn from this experience.”