Hillel and Shammai’s Lesson for Harvard

Hillel and Shammai’s lesson for Harvard:  True communities don’t stifle difficult conversations

Two schools of Jewish thought—grounded in the work of two great first-century scholars, Hillel and Shammai—disagreed for centuries on matters great and small. (One of the more interesting controversies in their long history concerned the ethics of the “white lie” and—getting right down to cases—whether or not you should you tell the bride she’s beautiful even if she isn’t.) Yet the two scholarly communities got along and even admired each other, in part because they were both committed to the Jewish community as a whole. As a result, modern Jews, to whom some of those past arguments now seem unimportant, see them not only as historical opponents but as a joint blessing to the collective community—two fountains of wisdom being even better than one.

Of course, this is by no means a uniquely Jewish trait and it certainly should be characteristic of any learning community—leaning into debate and disagreement rather than pulling the rug out from under it. Unfortunately, that’s just what Harvard’s President Lawrence Bacow has done in his “community email” of January 25 in response to the Supreme Court’s decision to hear a case challenging the admissions practices at Harvard and the University of North Carolina. Harvard has been accused of discriminating against Asian-American applicants in order to favor less-academically qualified Black and Hispanic applicants so as to increase the representation of those groups on campus. Harvard was hoping the question had been settled by lower-court decisions in Harvard’s favor. But for many, the legal question—and the overarching social and moral question—remains wide open: Should Harvard and any other university be allowed to keep doing this, in the name of greater good?

Bacow’s letter begins with a reminder that diversity makes us stronger, then shuts down any diversity of opinion on a topic that certainly evokes such diversity. Indeed, his letter shows the alarming degree to which Harvard has lost its tolerance—never mind enthusiasm—for open debate and its faith in the “marketplace of ideas.”

Bacow defends Harvard’s admissions policies, but not by actually explaining what they are and why that’s okay. Harvard’s admissions process is famously shrouded in secrecy. Bacow’s letter sheds no light. We are simply to take his word that whatever Harvard is doing over at the Admissions Department, it’s the right thing for all to believe.

This violates, in several ways, the very idea of a university and of a community more generally. For example, in the entire letter, only one viewpoint is acknowledged—Harvard’s official viewpoint. There is no recognition that not everyone in the very large and—by its own description—very ideologically diverse Harvard community agrees. Nor any acknowledgement of what substantively motivates the legal action against Harvard.

Oddly for such a highly placed educator, Bacow does not invite or seem to expect his readers to educate themselves on the issue. Why, for example, does he not summarize the legal arguments, offer his own reflections on them, and trust us to be convinced—or accept that, in good faith, some might not be? Rather, he says flatly that “there is no persuasive, credible evidence warranting” a reversal of previous court rulings favorable to Harvard’s admissions policy. No announcement that over the coming year there will be panels, discussions, and debates to help the Harvard community think more deeply about this complicated dilemma and why the university is “right.”  And if that would be legally unwise as president of a university being sued, why not at least invite his readers to study and discuss the issue themselves, privately or publicly?

Towards the end of the letter, Bacow claims that ”the rule of law” is at stake. In fact, the case against Harvard—whatever one might think of it—is making its way through the legal system precisely by the rule of law. He invokes precedent—earlier court decisions which supported race-conscious admissions policies—as if precedent were not merely important but absolutely inviolable. Of course we don’t want the law of the land changing every month, but that’s a rhetorical device, not an argument. One can also not want wrong, out-of-date, or—as some argue—confusing and unworkable guidance frozen in place forever.

Harvard purports to train leaders—of society, of business, of government. There’s no question that a lot of leaders emerge from Harvard, but there is a legitimate question of how much Harvard does to train them for constructive, pro-social—not just narrowly successful—leadership. Much more aspirational would be to train leaders to make positive change in an increasingly rigidly polarized country, as many Harvard professors have noted we so sorely need. Here is a chance to involve the Harvard community in just the kind of thing a leader has to do—understand and juggle competing and legitimate interests without losing sight of guiding principles. Hillel and Shammai set an example of this for the ages. But for the moment, Bacow has let his chance to continue such a valuable tradition slip by.

About the Author
Todd L. Pittinsky is a professor at Stony Brook University (SUNY) and a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County. His most recent book is "Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy" (with B. Kellerman, Cambridge University Press).
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