Confronting the past, committing to the future

Dear Members of the Harvard Chan School Community:

As you heard from President Larry Bacow this morning, the Steering Committee on Human Remains has issued a report offering guidance to the University about its obligations to individuals whose remains are held by Harvard museums, including 19 people of African descent who are believed to have been enslaved.

We are grateful to the Steering Committee—led by Professor Evelynn Hammonds, who holds a joint appointment in our School and in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences—for their careful scholarship and thoughtful recommendations.

We also want to make clear that this report, like the report released last spring on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery, is just the start.

The University has committed to following the Steering Committee’s recommendations for respectful return, ethical care, and dignified treatment of the human remains. Last spring, the University also committed to seek “meaningful repair” for the appalling history of Harvard faculty and leaders enslaving people and conducting abusive research on human beings. These are important commitments.

But we as a community must make commitments, too.

We must commit to grapple with these painful legacies. We must commit to not look away.

Harvard Chan School is built around a shared vision of health, dignity, and justice for every human being. That’s the essence of public health. Throughout this academic year, we will come together regularly to discuss how we can accelerate work toward this vision as part of the University’s commitment to accountability, redress, and repair.

On Oct. 18, we will hold our first forum for students; we will watch a short film that Harvard produced on the Legacy of Slavery and then open the floor for dialogue. A similar event for faculty, staff, and postdocs will follow on Oct. 25. A community-wide forum on Nov. 29 will focus on recommendations for the path forward. Please join us. We want to hear from you.

Professor Allan Brandt wrote in the introduction to today’s report that Harvard’s collection of human remains “is a striking representation of structural and institutional racism and its long half-life.” As we all know, that half-life has not run its course. Structural and institutional racism persist, with insidious effects.

And so today, we recommit to being agents of change. Our community is powerful. We are confident that confronting the past with clarity and purpose will help us build a more just and inclusive future—together.


Michelle and Lilu

Michelle A. Williams, ScD 
Dean of the Faculty, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Angelopoulos Professor in Public Health and International Development,
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Kennedy School

Amarildo “Lilu” Barbosa
Chief Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Officer
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health