On Tuesday, I received an email from the president of Harvard University, Claudine Gay, announcing her decision to resign. It was addressed to “members of the Harvard community,” to which I belong as an alumnus (MDiv ’14) and a Harvard chaplain for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.
Harvard is a community I care about deeply. And the last few months have demonstrated that many other people care deeply about Harvard too—people well beyond the list Gay emailed. Her announcement came after a series of Harvard-centered media frenzies, some about Gay’s December congressional testimony and subsequent plagiarism allegations, and some about student groups’ response to the horrific Hamas attacks of October 7 and the ensuing Israel-Hamas war.
I’ve been asked many times for my opinion of what’s happening, and, initially, my instinct was to provide the nuance those headlines always seem to miss. But as the stories kept coming, increasingly, I’ve found myself giving a different answer: Perhaps you should care about Harvard less.
In one sense, the interest was understandable. This round of media attention started with a truly reprehensible statement by a Harvard student organization after October 7, a statement that laid all blame for the violence on Israel and that was signed by a number of other student groups.
I raised an eyebrow when I saw it, but I also know firsthand what student groups can be like: passionate, informal, chaotic. I would later learn that some groups were surprised to see their name attached to the statement, and others had not seen the statement before it was published.
This is going to cause a stir on campus, I thought.
Boy, was I wrong. It did not just cause a stir on campus. It caused a stir nationwide. And why was it a national news story? Probably for the same reason you’re reading this very article: We’re obsessed with Harvard. Harvard gets clicks.
Along with a few other top academic institutions, Harvard has a special way of occupying the minds of the American public. The name alone evokes a strange mixture of awe and envy. The brand conveys a significance that fascinates us. For a second, we forget Christ’s words—“the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matt. 20:16)—and are taken with Harvard’s prestige.
I’ve experienced this myself. When I got the opportunity to study at Harvard in 2011, I was drawn in by its reputation. I didn’t really reflect on whether it was the right choice for me or part of God’s plan for me. I saw the H at the top of my acceptance letter, broke up with my girlfriend of six days (sorry!), and bought a one-way ticket to Boston.
Everyone at Harvard knows the power of the name. It’s why Harvard students say, I study in Boston, not, I’m at Harvard. No one wants to drop the H-bomb on an otherwise polite conversation!
As I started my ministry with Harvard grad students, I learned a key lesson from my mentor, Jeff Barneson, who has been a campus minister at the university longer than Israel wandered the desert: “We all must reach the point where we repent of the reasons we came to Harvard.” Why? Because, to some degree, we all came here because we were enamored of the worldly success that is synonymous with the Harvard name.
Harvard has rightly earned much of its reputation through centuries of world-class scholarship. That ought to be applauded. But sound scholarship is not the reason Harvard stories go national while we ignore what’s happening at local community colleges or state schools to which we’re far more likely to have a personal or communal connection. Our increasingly interconnected world is causing our attention, along with our anger, to be pulled toward remote narratives.
Too often we fail to scrutinize where our attention goes and why we’re focusing less on our own communities and more on faraway people and places. We don’t notice the fruit of giving too much attention to glittering names like Harvard—and it is not good fruit.
First, caring too much about Harvard makes us more likely to oversimplify and misunderstand distant stories and people, which risks distorting our attitudes. It’s a symptom of “Gell-Mann amnesia,” a term author Michael Crichton coined to describe how we notice misleading statements and errors when we read news stories on topics within our expertise, then read uncritically on topics outside of our experience.
Because few of us know Harvard and similar institutions well, we are likely to be misled by flawed reporting and to caricature the people involved. Instead of seeing the image of God in them, we see simplistic representations of ideas we hate. We miss the reality of the situation and fail to regard people from Christ’s perspective (2 Cor. 5:16).
Relatedly, caring too much about Harvard often has us spending time and care on problems too big and far for us to help—while neglecting smaller, nearer circumstances where we could actually make a difference. If every person who wrote an angry comment at the bottom of a Harvard article spent that same energy on their city, school district, or church, they’d likely find something more constructive to say and something more useful to do.
Jesus gave his attention to the people in front of him (Matt. 14:14). He gave little credence to the colossal institutions that trusted in their own significance (Mark 12:13–17). We would do well to imitate him.
Finally, our over-attention to Harvard exacerbates the very imbalance of which its critics often complain. Even an anti-Harvard obsession helps to concentrate power in Harvard and institutions like it.
The world is full of brilliant people and outstanding universities. As a society, we would do better to recognize that brilliance wherever it is found, rather than assessing people based on their association with a brand like Harvard. Harvard has no monopoly on brilliance and does not deserve a monopoly on our attention.
The point is not to bash Harvard—though, certainly, it does deserve scrutiny and even criticism for a great many things. Rather, it is to redirect our attention toward better objects. There’s a quote, often misattributed to C. S. Lewis but more accurately credited to Rick Warren, which explains that humility “is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”
Something like that applies here. For most of us, the right response to all this clamor isn’t to think less of Harvard, but to think of Harvard less.
Pete Williamson is the team leader for InterVarsity’s Graduate and Faculty Ministries at Harvard University and a Harvard chaplain.