Letter | My existence is a better revenge than renaming Harvard’s Lowell House
As a Jewish alumna of Harvard College who lived in Lowell House, I am in strong disagreement with Mitchell Bard’s recent piece urging the university to rename the undergraduate residence hall.
When I was a student in Lowell from 2014-2017, there were always frank conversations within the House community about the racism, homophobia, misogyny, and anti-Semitism that marked President Lowell’s tenure at the helm of the University. In my experience at Harvard, nobody ever tried to obfuscate or ignore any of Lowell’s problematic views or actions and the way they shaped Harvard’s history. In fact, in a course about the history of Harvard that I took my senior fall, Lowell’s bigotry was discussed at length; I even had the opportunity to view the original copy of a letter he wrote denying a woman admission to the college because of her sex.
Bard points to the lack of information on Harvard’s website about President Lowell’s discriminatory practices. I am in full agreement that the university should be more transparent with its external communications about its history, even the parts that portray Harvard in a negative light. I also applaud the Lowell faculty deans’ 2019 decision to remove Lowell’s portrait from the dining hall, a portrait that served to idolize the man rather than critically consider his complicated legacy.
If Harvard removes Lowell’s name from the House, that will only prove to take away a much-needed prompt to “reckon with its anti-Semitic history,” as Bard says is his goal. To paper over Lowell’s name as if his presidency never happened is to whitewash Harvard’s history.
Lowell House is not a sedentary statue that celebrates who Abbott Lawrence Lowell was; it is a dynamic and evolving community of students from many walks of life who are intelligent and capable of dissecting Lowell and his legacy. We must not allow ourselves to forget about Harvard’s struggles — both past and present — to integrate a diverse student body. Keeping Lowell’s name is an important reminder of this difficult history, all that we have accomplished since then, and all the work that still needs to be done.
When my rooming group and I — a group of women from Asian, Latin, and Jewish backgrounds hailing from Singapore, Alaska, Arizona, Texas, Massachusetts, and New York — learned that we would be living in Lowell House, we were excited to join a House community known for its beloved faculty deans and quirky traditions. As I learned more about the extent of Abbott Lawrence Lowell’s discrimination and bigotry, I only gained more House pride. As a Jew and as a woman, I greatly enjoyed knowing that President Lowell must be rolling in his grave with the knowledge that he failed at keeping people like me out of Harvard.
My grandparents were Holocaust survivors whose families were almost entirely wiped out in the crematoria of Auschwitz. They came to New York in 1949 with nothing but the clothes on their backs. From this humble beginning, they rebuilt. They brushed the smoke off their clothes and they got an apartment, became American citizens, had two daughters, got a house, bought a car, sent their daughters to Jewish schools and then college and then graduate school and married them both off.
Against all odds, they made it out of Auschwitz and have great-grandchildren walking this earth. They made their lives over again, despite everything that tried to stop them from doing so. They taught me that living well is the best revenge, and I can’t think of a better way to show people like Abbott Lawrence Lowell that we will always survive.