Harvard's Character Problem

As a kid, I dreamed of going to Harvard because of its prestigious academic reputation. As an adult, I thank my lucky stars (and lack of income at the time) that I was unable to apply there. What I did not realize in my youthful and idealistic days was that Harvard has a character problem.

If the cheating scandals, bribery-for-admission investigations, and discrimination investigations weren’t enough, Harvard is now being sued because it is profiteering from slavery.

Yes, you read that correctly. Profiteering from slavery.

In the mid-1970s, Harvard discovered daguerreotypes (early photographs) of 17 slaves that had been stored in an attic on their campus since the mid-1800s. According to USA Today:

Professor Louis Agassiz, a [Harvard] biologist, had the photos taken to support an erroneous theory called polygenism that he and others used to argue African-Americans were inferior to white people.

The slaves in the photographs—aka, the people who were forced to suffer unimaginable inhumanities and degradation every day of their lives—were forced to strip naked while enduring the humiliating process of being photographed.

What did Harvard decide to do with these relics of abuse and institutionalized racism? They decided to license them and use them in a book from which they receive profits. As a result, the direct descendant of two of the slaves in the images is suing Harvard.

While I’m unclear on the legal intricacies involved with such a case, the ethical implications are as profound as they are obvious. This “prestigious” academic institution chose to:

  • place profit above principle

  • treat unethical and unethically obtained images as amoral

  • ignore the fact that the images are used to further racist agendas

  • further objectify abuse victims while amplifying their descendants’ pain

By not denouncing the images and the school’s prior support of inhumane racist theorists, Harvard lends credence to the notion that homo homini lupus. Man is wolf to man.

And herein lies Harvard’s character problem, which should be a public relations problem—at least in a society that disavows the monetizing of human suffering. Hopefully this world has enough people of character left that Harvards’ proverbial feet will be held to the fire until they figure out how to place principle above profit.

Virginia Murr, Character HQ