Harvard President Larry Bacow speaking at Peking University.

Photo by Yi Wang

Nation & World

In China, Bacow emphasizes common values

7 min read

During speech at Peking University, he also says universities are places that champion creative ideas and contrary views

Universities are key drivers of innovation and transformation, centers of progress and collaboration, institutions that foster connection despite turbulent times, and havens of open exchange where myriad opinions and ideas offer solutions to the world’s most pressing concerns, Harvard President Larry Bacow told an audience in Beijing today.

Bacow also met with Chinese President Xi Jinping later in the day to discuss the importance of learning and of  cultural and educational exchanges. On his first overseas trip as Harvard’s president, he will travel to  Japan after his China visit.

During his speech at Peking University, the oldest such institution in China, Bacow addressed students, faculty, and administrators, telling them that “transformational thought and action” often take root on university campuses where intellectual freedom is paramount.

“Overturning conventional wisdom takes a remarkable amount of grit and determination, as well as a willingness to welcome contrary views and to risk being proved wrong,” said Bacow. “Great universities nurture these qualities. They are places where individuals are encouraged both to listen and to speak, where the value of an idea is discussed and debated — not suppressed or silenced. …

“In many circumstances, my role as president is not to define the ‘correct’ position of the University but to keep the channels of discussion open,” said Bacow, who has faced a range of controversial issues during his first year as Harvard’s president that have sparked discussions among students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends of the University. But while such debates can “cause discomfort,” he said, they also signal a “healthy community” and an “active and engaged citizenship.”

“From a distance, Harvard can appear to be a place that speaks in one voice,” said Bacow. “It is, in fact, a place of many voices. And one of the most important — and most difficult — of our tasks is to ensure that all members of the community feel empowered to speak their minds.”

Universities can also serve as “sources of strength through tough economic, political, and social times,” said Bacow. And facilitating connections between scholars from different parts of the world, he added, can change the course of history. As an example of the power of collaboration, Bacow pointed to the Pugwash Conference in 1957, an international gathering of scientists in Nova Scotia, Canada, who were gravely concerned about the fate of the world amid the threat of weapons of mass destruction and who considered peaceful negotiation the model for settling international disputes.

“To be sure, Harvard is an American university, and Beida is a Chinese university. Our institutions have a responsibility to contribute positively to our own societies and to the national good, as well as to the world at large. But as universities we fulfill this charge precisely by embodying and defending academic values that transcend the boundaries of any one country.”

Larry Bacow

“Their collective work helped to pave the way for the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963 and the Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968, among other consequential agreements,” he said. “There were 22 attendees — seven from the United States, three from the Soviet Union, three from Japan, two from the United Kingdom, two from Canada, and one each from Australia, Austria, China, France, and Poland. Professor Zhou Peiyuan, a physicist and the sole Chinese member of the group, later became president of this great institution and, in 1978, led a delegation that arranged for scholarly exchange between China and the United States. We owe thanks to people like Professor Zhou Peiyuan for their farsighted and courageous leadership and for putting peace and mutual understanding above all other considerations.

“As I speak to you now,” he continued, “our governments are engaged in important and at times difficult discussions over a range of issues — and those discussions have implications that reverberate around the world. I believe that sustaining the bonds that join scholars across borders is of the utmost importance for all of us gathered here today — and for anyone who cares about the unique role that higher education plays in the lives of countless people.

Harvard President Larry Bacow (left) meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Harvard President Larry Bacow spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Andrea Verdelli/Pool Photo via AP

“It is at crucial times like these that leading universities have a special role to play. To be sure, Harvard is an American university, and Beida is a Chinese university,” Bacow continued, using Peking University’s colloquial name. “Our institutions have a responsibility to contribute positively to our own societies and to the national good, as well as to the world at large. But as universities we fulfill this charge precisely by embodying and defending academic values that transcend the boundaries of any one country.”

As part of his visit, Bacow also addressed more than 300 members of the Harvard alumni community at an event in Hong Kong on Monday sponsored by the Harvard Alumni Association, the Harvard Club of Hong Kong, the Harvard Club of Beijing, the Harvard Club of Shanghai, the Harvard Club of South China, Guangdong, and the Harvard Club of the Republic of China in Taiwan. Bacow will also speak with Harvard alumni in Japan.

In his speech, Bacow traced Harvard’s long ties to China, and detailed the ongoing partnerships that have helped define their academic and intellectual engagement for more than 100 years.

In 1879, prominent Chinese scholar Ge Kunhua traveled to Cambridge to become Harvard’s first instructor in Mandarin Chinese. The trove of books that accompanied him laid the foundation for the Harvard-Yenching Library, the third-largest of the University’s 12 libraries. With 1.5 million volumes, it is also “the largest academic library for East Asian studies outside of Asia,” said Bacow.

President Larry Bacow addressed more than 300 members of the Harvard alumni community in Hong Kong on Monday. Timothy O’Rourke/Hong Kong Event Photography

Today, Harvard’s scholarly programs and centers devoted to China include the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, whose mission is to “advance scholarship in all fields of China Studies at Harvard;” the Harvard-Yenching Institute, established in 1928 to advance higher education in Asia in the humanities and social sciences, with special attention to the study of Chinese culture; the Harvard-China Project on Energy, Economy, and Environment, an interdisciplinary project that conducts peer-reviewed research; and the Harvard China Fund, which provides University-wide funding for China-related work, internships, and summer school.

Bacow noted that the University’s newest effort, The Harvard Global Institute, was launched four years ago to provide funding for small- and large-scale research projects, the majority of which are focused on China. “Effective approaches and solutions to challenges posed by climate change, cybersecurity threats, and international relations will not be developed by a single university — or a single nation,” he said. “Change and adaptation in these and other areas will require many people collaborating across schools, sectors, and societies, as well as governments.” That collaboration is well underway. More than 1,000 students and more than 1,000 scholars are at Harvard this year from China, and they learn and work in every School,  said Bacow. More than 2,500 alumni call China home.

“If Ge Kunhua were to return to Cambridge today,” he said, “no doubt he would be gratified to see that there are many Harvard professors who, like him, were born in China and are now teaching at the University. He would also be pleased, I think, to learn that Chinese is the second most widely studied foreign language at Harvard.”

The ties between Harvard and Peking University, institutions that value the power of learning, can help rewrite the future, Bacow said.

“Harvard and Beida share a deep and enduring commitment to higher education,” he said. “We enjoy many strong connections and collaborations among our students and our faculty, who are generating knowledge that will change the world for the better.”

Bacow closed his remarks by quoting the late, renowned Uyghur poet Abdurehim Ötkür:
“Along life’s road I have always sought truth,
In the search for verity, thought was always my guide.
My heart yearned without end for a chance of expression,
And longed to find words of meaning and grace.
Come, my friends, let our dialogue joyfully begin.”