Higher Education, Democracy and Human Rights

Convocation remarks to welcome students

to the ALB and ALM Programs at the Harvard Extension School

Saturday September 29, 2018

Fernando M. Reimers

What a great joy it is to welcome you at this inaugural convocation of the Harvard Extension School to celebrate your admission into the Bachelor and Master of Liberal Arts programs.

I take pleasure in teaching two courses at the extension school, a course on education policy and a course on educational innovation, something I have done over the last decade. I am a Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education where I teach the same two courses, as well as direct the masters program in international education policy. Teaching at the extension school provides me the opportunity to work with a highly motivated group of students from a very diverse range of backgrounds. In the two courses I teach online at the Extension School, my students are based in multiple countries and time zones, they have a range of professional experiences and most combine their studies with a job. I learn a great deal from the privilege of teaching my extension school students.

In my work as a member of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education I have learned how important it is for universities to rapidly evolve to use novel modalities to engage students at various points in their careers. As changing requirements for economic and civic participation lead people to look for ways to continuously learn, to reinvent themselves professionally several times during their lives, universities must expand their offerings from the traditional focus on education in the early stage of people’s careers to a richer set of effective programs to help people educate themselves at various points in their lives. Working with my students at the extension school helps me learn from experience what this means in practice, and the lessons I learn from them inform not only the work I do at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, but also on the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education, or in other boards in which I serve at Harvard and in other education organizations. So, this is all to say THANK YOU you for giving me and my colleagues the opportunity to help Harvard become more relevant to the demands of our times.

Personally, I am indebted to the opportunities the Division of Continuing Education has provided me, not only through the teaching I currently do in extension. As an undergraduate student in Venezuela, I was able to take an English Language course at the Harvard Summer School. It was that course that first brought me to this campus and that gave me the opportunity that a professor would suggest that I should consider pursuing graduate studies at Harvard. As the first person in my family to have gone on to college, that opportunity opened for me possibilities that changed the course of my life. I sincerely hope your studies in extension do the same for you.

These are exciting times at Harvard. Our new President, Larry Bacow, has clearly stated his priority of ‘taking Harvard to Pontiac, Michigan’. As you might imagine, he is not planning to place these buildings on large trucks and have them drive 12 hours the 800 or so miles to Michigan. Instead, President Bacow is using that powerful metaphor to cause all members of the Harvard community to remember that we exist to serve society, to advance the well being of humanity in the broadest possible sense. It would be a very narrow way to serve that goal if we limited our teaching to working with students who can move to Cambridge for some years while they pursue their studies full time in Harvard College or in the professional schools. The number of people who are keen to study is much greater than those who can do that in the way I have just described, and we would miss the opportunity to work with them, to learn from them, if we failed to engage with a more diverse group of students. All of you, those of you who take classes in Cambridge, as well as those of you who take classes online, are a tangible way to advance the goal of ‘taking Harvard to Michigan’.

The extension school, under the good leadership of Dean Huntington Lambert and his team, has been leading the way at Harvard in advancing this important aspect of our mission. The extension school plays a critically important role advancing President Bacow’s priority of helping this wonderful institution be of even greater service to society and to humanity.

The reason President Bacow’s goal is so very important, and the reason the opportunity you provide the University to advance this goal so critical, stems from some serious challenges facing values which are essential to universities. While Universities have been around for some time in the long history of humanity, modern research universities are more recent. Modern universities are a product of the same set of revolutionary ideas that gave birth to democracy and to public education, all of them stem from the audacious proposition that ordinary people can rule themselves, become architects of their own lives, and collaborate with others in improving the communities of which they are a part.

Those ideas were developed by the likes of John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith, Wilhelm Humboldt, and in this continent Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

The new purposes of the ‘modern’ university crystalized with the founding of the first modern research university in Berlin by Wilhelm von Humboldt in 1820, a university that would advance three interrelated goals: the advancement of truth through research, the promotion of independent and critical thinking, and the education of the public.

In a nutshell, the reason it is so important to have you as our partners in advancing the mission of the University, is because together we can help realize our mission to help advance democratic ideals as you develop the competencies that empower you to become not only architects of your own lives, but builders of the communities of which you are a part.

So allow me to extend you an invitation, the invitation for all of us to think big and align our collective work with ambitious purposes. The purpose to improve the world. Wait a minute, some of you may wonder, why am I inviting you to think about improving the world when I just said that I embrace President Bacow’s invitation to take Harvard to Pontiac, Michigan? Isn’t there a tension between the seemingly local focus of the President’s invitation, and the global nature of the challenge to improve the world? I don’t see these two as opposites, but as one and the same goal. The world comes to us first in our most immediate surroundings, in our local communities. When I say we should all get on with trying to figure out how to eliminate global poverty, the first place we ought to seek to do this is our neighborhood, our city, our state. As we do this work locally we are of course contributing to the larger global task. But it is also the case that the local and the global are interconnected, in multiple ways, and understanding those interconnections, and learning to navigate them productively, is part of what an education that empowers students to improve the world in the 21st century should do. When I work with colleagues in Mexico, or in India, or in Japan, or Russia, discerning how best to transform public education systems in those countries to empower students with the capacities they need in the 21st century, that work augments my capacity to do the same work in Massachusetts, or in the United States. Just yesterday, I hosted a colleague who has done remarkable work advancing education for the poorest children in rural china, he explained how they have developed low cost interventions to provide early childhood education to students who live in very marginalized villages, and talked about their work transforming technical and vocational education. Last night, over dinner, I shared what I had learned with my wife, a member of the Massachusetts Board of Early Childhood Education where they are working hard figuring out how to appropriately provide early childhood services to children in the most marginalized communities in our State. I am certain my students who were part of these conversations drew similar benefits from being able to identify good practices which could be productively transferred across contexts.

If you accept my invitation to devote your studies at Harvard to developing your skills to improve the world, I urge you to spend some time soon, learning about the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. This is a compact of 17 goals adopted at the General Assembly of the United Nations three years ago which outlines how to create a world that is inclusive, sustainable and where we can live in Peace. A world without poverty, with food and health for all, with gender equality, and where we relate to life and the environment in ways which are sustainable. As you study these goals ask yourself, continuously, how can you advance them, in what ways could your career help make a difference to advancing these goals? I am certain that our lives are best lived when they are lived in service of purposes bigger than ourselves, of good purposes and audacious ambitions to leave our mark in this world, to do our share to repair the many aspects of this world in need of repair, and to make the world better for future generations. I am also certain, without a doubt, that each one of you, each and every one of you, has the power, if you choose to take yourself seriously, to change the course of history. That in the choices you each make is the hope that we will indeed, collectively, be able to successfully face the challenges of our time. The serious challenge of poverty for many will not take care of itself. The problems of exclusion, discrimination and bigotry will not solve themselves. The damage we are causing to our climate will not solve itself. The grave moral crisis represented in the fact that a woman with the courage to come forward and denounce that the person who sexually assaulted her as a teenager is been considered for a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court of the United States has to leave her home and hide under security protection because the death threats and harassment that Dr. Christine Ford and her family have received since she had the courage to ask members of Congress to seek the truth about the moral character of Judge Brett Kavanaugh. These serious problems will be addressed only to the extent that ordinary people, people like you and me, take ourselves seriously and ask ‘what can I do? What is within my reach? And how do I build myself up to make the most of the time I have on this earth to make a difference?’

I have complete confidence that you can choose to be an Upstander for the values that inspire the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which are the same values that inspire Universities such as Harvard, or public schools or democracies, which are the values recognizing the fundamental equality of all persons, their inherent dignity, and our power to decide what kind of lives we want to live, and to work with others in building a better world that includes us all. These democratic values need Upstanders because they are under attack, in this country and elsewhere in the world.

The most recent Freedom House survey on the state of democracy around the world concludes that democracy faces its most serious crisis in decades as its core tenets –free and fair elections, rights of minorities, freedom of the press and the rule of law– are under attack around the world. In the past year, seventy-one countries suffered declines in political rights and civil liberties, while only 35 experienced gains. This makes 2017 the 12th consecutive year in decline in global freedom. The report indicates that the United States retreated from its traditional role as a champion and exemplar of democracy as political rights and civil liberties decline in the United States (Freedom House, 2018.)

This global democratic setback is the most severe since the rise of fascism in the 1930s (Inglehart, 2018). It includes the rise of populism, authoritarian and xenophobic movements in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom (Ibid).

Alongside democratic decline and increase in support for authoritarianism, there is rising ‘othering’ of people from diverse ethnic and religious identities. Several recent reports document an increase in religious and ethnic hatred in the United States since the presidential election, as white nationalist groups grow (Beirich and Buchanan, 2018). The Anti-Defamation League’s yearly publication, for example, in its annual Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents, “found that the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. rose 57 percent in 2017 — the largest single-year increase on record. The sharp rise was in part due to a significant increase in incidents in schools and on college campuses, which nearly doubled for the second year in a row.” (ADL 2018).

Along with decline in support for democratic institutions and increase in ‘othering’ and attacks on the rights of some groups, rising populist movements are undermining the value of reason and of the institutions that enhance it, such as science and education, including universities. Political debates now include references to ‘alternative facts’, and some politicians question the value of education. There is currently a proposal in Congress that would tax the endowment of universities like Harvard, in ways that would undermine the capacity of Universities to carry out their mission. No other kind of non-profit institution, neither hospitals, museums, private schools, charities, nor foundations, has been singled out for this form of public capture of resources freely given to them by private individuals in the way Universities such as Harvard have, and we must ask why. Why is it that some political leaders have concluded that universities no longer add value to society.

Michael Hayden, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, has warned of the dangers that this assault on facts and intelligence poses to US national security (2018). In a recent book (2018), former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright explains that the rise of fascism is a more serious threat today than at any time since the end of World War II.

In a nutshell, this is an extraordinary time to choose to align one’s life with the goal of advancing the audacious proposition that people are fundamentally equal, capable of self rule, and capable of working with others to improve the communities of which they are a part. To the extent that in the work we do together, in the years you devote to your studies at Extension, we succeed in helping you build yourselves up to advance those values, the Extension school will have truly lived up to the aspiration of taking Harvard to Pontiac, Michigan, and of Improving the World.

Thank you for the opportunity each of you gives us, and gives this University, to pursue these goals which are so central to our mission. Few things we do could be more important at this time.

Note: References to bibliographic sources in this convocation keynote are extracted from my recent book Learning to Collaborate for the Global Common Good.

With Dean Huntington Lambert at Harvard Extension School Convocation 9.29.2018



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Fernando M. Reimers

Expert in Global Education, researching and teaching how to educate children and youth so they can thrive in complex and fluid times.