Going to School on Harvard’s Response to Its History with Slavery

Leading the Discussion of an Imperfect Past with Honesty and Transparency is the Best Crisis-Prevention Strategy  

4/28/22 – – Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow this week released a report by the university’s Committee on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery. The findings and recommendations, along with a commitment of $100 million, are the result of the first phase of an initiative “to uncover the truth of Harvard’s ties to slavery.” The faculty-led committee will now focus on “the process of reckoning and repair.”

Harvard is one of many academic institutions attempting to address this ugly aspect of their pasts. For all organizations and institutions, facing such reckonings is a daunting, painful reputational challenge.

For the last seven years, Georgetown University, led by President John J. DeGioia, has been dealing with its own slavery entanglements with mixed results. While sincere efforts to right wrongs have been praised — including the renaming of buildings, creation of a website and slavery archive, the erection of a memorial on campus, and admission preferences given to descendants of slaves who played an integral role in Georgetown’s financial survival — critics have pointed to the university’s reluctance to pay cash reparations to individuals as a sign of insincerity.

Despite the inevitable turbulence, Georgetown and Harvard are doing the right thing.

In Chapter 3 of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient (“Where Crises Come From”), we examine nine common sources from which crises spring: People, Products, Priorities, Policies, Performance, Politics, Procrastination, Privacy and Past. A college’s or company’s past is fertile ground for reputational erosion. The best way to deal with this reality is with honesty and transparency. Organizations can control their own destinies as much as possible by encouraging an open examination of their histories, warts and all. Better you lead the discussion than allow others to “dig up the dirt” and define your heritage.

Honestly embracing your past, even if it’s imperfect, can yield positive results.

An article in the August 16, 2017, New York Times headlined, “Rescuing a Whiskey Legacy,” revealed that back in the 1850s, a Tennessee slave named Nearest Green taught white teenager Jack Daniel how to make whiskey. After the Civil War, Nearest went into business with Jack as the first master distiller of Jack Daniel’s. Recognition of this fascinating history may have been long overdue, but credit Brown-Forman, marketers of Jack Daniel’s, with seeing Green’s pivotal contribution to what has become an iconic American brand as something to celebrate. As Times reporter Clay Risen observed:

At a rough time for race relations in America, the relationship between Daniel and Green allows Brown-Forman to tell a positive story, while also pioneering an overdue conversation about the unacknowledged role that black people, as salves and later as free men, played in the evolution of American whiskey.

In his introduction to this week’s report (linked below and well worth the read), President Bacow admits that Harvard is “far from perfect.” He hopes that the work of the Committee on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery will “bring our lived experience ever closer to our high ideals,” continuing “a long tradition of embracing the challenges before us. That, too, is a vital part of our history.”

The crisis-prevention lesson of the Harvard, Georgetown and Brown-Forman experiences is clear: You can’t change your past. But you can and should take steps now to tell your own history. In addition to being the right thing to do, a proactive strategy will protect your brand and lessen the chances that your past will draw you into a crisis.


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