Immigration and change: Advice from Drew Faust

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe staff

Harvard President Drew Faust.

By Arthur McCaffrey  

After a decade on the job, Harvard University president Drew Faust has decided to hang up her academic robes and retire next year. Legacy mavens are already hard at work evaluating her accomplishments, but what stands out for me is her view about the challenges of change expressed informally during a campus interview in 2007.

Asked about her approach to leadership, Faust said that the question of change, and how to manage it, had been at the heart of her scholarly work. As a historian of the Civil War, a time of epochal change, she sought to understand how people responded when confronted with a necessity to change — did they embrace it or resist it?


And when change happens over time as part of social evolution and transformation, how do we take traditional ideas — like America’s constitutional precepts of freedom and equality — and interpret or reinterpret them in a way that is appropriate for a new era? Here is Faust’s prescription:

“I found that change happens best when it can be shown to be embedded in long-held beliefs, values, and traditions, so it doesn’t seem like a total assault on people’s identities and desires. Part of spurring real change effectively is to make it as seamless as possible with what has gone before. It’s essential to identify continuities that can serve as bridges over the chasm of differences. Building understanding and encouraging transparency about purpose and shared commitments are both prerequisites for change. Then you can say, ‘Hope you’ll come too. But this is where we’re going.’ So change begins with understanding, persuasion, collaboration, and building a case, but ultimately it becomes a gesture of decisive movement.”

In 2017, Faust’s voice sounds uncommonly rational and compassionate, respectful of all the stakeholders in a sea of change. Contrast this display of principled leadership with the rancorous, polarized immigration debate currently raging in the United States, Britain, and Europe, an example of social and cultural change that is not being met rationally or respectfully for all the parties involved — particularly for the domestic host communities that bear the brunt of dealing with the challenges of migrant resettlement.

The current global crisis of migration, with millions of refugees flooding into a Europe without reception or assimilation plans in place, has triggered a new kind of change — radical, abrupt, unprecedented, disruptive.

So are Americans, individually, or collectively as a nation, doing a better job of meeting the refugee-migrant challenge? Apparently not. There are few political leaders echoing Faust’s wise counsel to build an immigration policy based on “understanding, persuasion, collaboration.” Instead, the immigration debate has degenerated into name-calling and rants against President Trump’s travel ban. Meanwhile the government’s immigration policies seem more patchwork than “seamless”, with the administration distracted by building walls rather than Faust’s “bridges.”


Liberals’ calls for unrestricted immigration don’t help; their one-sided advocacy ignores the “long-held beliefs, values, and traditions” of domestic host communities that suffer the trauma of disruptive demographic change. Despite liberals’ naive insistence that we can all get along together, you can’t mix cultures, races, and religions, and just keep your fingers crossed that we are all going to be good pals.

Faust’s prescriptions for managing change call for more planned, purposeful interaction between host and immigrant communities, in order to avoid the creation of Little Syrias or Little Iraqs in inner cities.

The United States should not admit refugees and immigrants without requiring that there be formal programs to assist adaptation on both sides, hosts and migrants. Absent state or federal programs, resettlement gets driven arbitrarily by market economics. Immigrants will tend to congregate in poorer communities where housing is cheaper; but that is also likely to be where our have-nots live, leaving them to bear the brunt (and competition) of the influx inequitably, while all-talk-and-no-action upper-class liberals continue to live hassle-free in their genteel suburbs. This is not what Faust means when she talks about shared commitment as a necessary prerequisite for change.

Without planned social intervention on behalf of both host and migrant communities, local conflicts and ethnic violence can occur, as already witnessed in England, France, and Germany.

When unrestricted, unsupported, and unmanaged refugee-migrant inflow disrupts preexisting, stable communities, it does not help to call the residents racist or xenophobic because they object to an uninvited burden.

Instead of Trump’s ban, we need new, creative programs for preparation of the host community and strict guidelines for acculturation by immigrants--e.g., additional federal economic support for host communities. Trying to solve immigration aftershocks with humanitarian relief is no substitute for the proactive change management recommended by Faust. Lacking that, disaffected voters produce the kind of political backlash already appearing here and in Europe.


Calling opponents “islamophobic” does not constitute a policy prescription. Following Faust, a truly inclusive immigration policy would include those stakeholders most likely to be affected by the social, economic, and cultural changes that immigration brings. Let’s work for change that respects residents’ “identities and desires” and build Faust’s case for respectful immigration policies that create win/win scenarios for both incomers and dwellers.

Arthur McCaffrey is a retired Harvard University psychologist.