Harvard president advises courage when dealing with diversity

In any institution where social, cultural and economic diversity exists, there is also a diversity of perspectives.

This diversity can either become an opportunity for thriving innovation or a hazard for conflict, depending on whether we approach difference with fear or with courage.

This was the inauguration message of Claudine Gay, the 30th president of Harvard University.

During her inauguration President Claudine Gay, who is also the institution’s first black president, spoke on the importance of courage. She explained, “Courage is a disposition. It does not whine, or complain, or wring its hands. It also does not pretend that risk and challenge do not exist. Courage faces fear and finds resolve.”

Her message encouraged the Harvard community to face their fear of being wrong and to embrace the progress that is made possible through new and alternative evidence.

South Africa is a country that is celebrated globally for its ability to overcome difference and embrace new perspectives. Our collective courage allowed us to overcome apartheid and create a new identity as a rainbow nation. But we cannot stop questioning this collective identity, or the knowledge and perspectives that have guided us this far. As president Gay alluded, we must maintain our courage to continuously ask “Why” and “Why not” because there is space for improvement.

Since South Africa’s past victories, it can be argued that we have not questioned our perspectives as much as we could have. According to the 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer, among other trust indicators, South Africans trust in government and institutions have been in decline. In societies without trust, polarised beliefs often thrive. There is more difficulty engaging with difference in a way that is kind and empathetic, and economic and social outcomes are usually poorer.

It can be argued that stifling our trust for one another, and our economic and social progress, is the ongoing fear of post-94 transformation. Within some of our institutions, transformation is still considered a hazardous proposal because too often we approach transformation with fear and not with courage. We are afraid of the discomfort it can bring, and this prevents our ability to progress.

Universities have a responsibility to embrace this discomfort and persuade us all to “find the courage to admit our imperfections”. As an influential sphere of our society, rebuilding trust within knowledge institutions can generate ripple effects of innovation and new perspectives that can yield the development we need.

It requires courage to “give up the safety of silence, the ease of idle chatter, the satisfaction of an echo chamber”. The temperament of courage holds valuable lessons for an institution like Harvard University, which attracts knowledge seekers from around the world. But it holds similar value for universities in South Africa, which are tasked with offering nuance to our increasingly polarised society.

The institutional perspectives that are forged by the courageous may never find consensus and that should not be the aim. Instead, President Gay advises that, “Communities that welcome diverse perspectives thrive not because they endorse all as valid but because they question all on their merits”.