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Is Personal Accountability a Thing of the Past?

The interaction between the Harvard undergraduate and Cambridge police that occurred on April 13 highlighted several challenges we face as a Harvard community, a Cambridge community, and humanity. First, the incident highlighted the power of social media to immediately polarize populations by challenging people to choose a side when they only had initial and partial information. Second, and more importantly, it highlighted how the notion of personal accountability for our own actions seems to be a thing of the past.

While there are certainly elements of the interaction between the student and police that merit attention and further scrutiny, the disappointing piece of this story is the reaction of the administration and the community. In an email to the community, University President Drew G. Faust absolved the student of any personal accountability for his own actions and framed the situation to automatically paint the police as the offenders—using words such as “a student in obvious distress” and “forcible arrest.” In using this language, the administration portrays the student as the victim and implies that, regardless of circumstance, the police were in the wrong.

In the email, Faust stated, “We do not yet know all the facts, and it will take time before the necessary reviews have been completed and we have a fuller understanding of events leading up to the incident and the incident itself.” However, what is obvious is that this student made a series of personal choices—choices including the alleged use of narcotics, removal of clothing in public, and actions that prompted bystanders to call the police. The message the President’s office failed to convey is whether the student’s choices would also be reviewed or scrutinized, and whether disciplinary action will be taken if merited. Instead, her email reinforced the notion that the student was a blameless victim, even going as far as blaming the University for failing in its responsibility to “establish the conditions of trust necessary for effective campus policing.” Community members quickly passed judgment against the police and called for support of the student victim.

Faust missed an opportunity to help break the cycle of perpetually displaced blame and zero personal accountability that seems to permeate society. If we fail a test, the professor must be bad; if we don’t get the promotion, it’s because they don’t like us; if we fail to achieve success, it’s because the system was stacked against us. Students at Harvard understand that there are complex challenges dealing with race, gender, orientation, and the like in our community, but these challenges are often framed as resulting from the actions of others and do not address our own roles and responsibilities. This was not an incident of someone standing casually outside of a convenience store being assaulted by police. This was an incident where an adult made choices—choices that led directly to an interaction with law enforcement—and these choices have consequences. The Cambridge Police Department will review their own procedures and should hold people accountable if necessary, but they are just as much a part of this community and deserve the support of Harvard affiliates.

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Will we review our own actions and hold ourselves accountable? How does one protect and serve a community when the police’s actions to subdue a noncompliant aggressor are automatically labeled as incorrect by those standing on the sidelines? This student could have proceeded to harass other community members, or worse, been struck by a passing motor vehicle. Has any of the outrage of the community focused on anything other than the moment of the incident—an incident that may have been avoided had different decisions been made?

The coverage of the student town hall addressing the incident made no mention of the student’s personal choices but was quick to place blame on everything from the University’s health system to implying that, regardless of the adult student’s state of mind, it was the University’s responsibility to keep him safe. The University president’s email stands to galvanize the already polarized attitude towards law enforcement, causing students to first question the actions of those in authority instead of their own choices.

Faust, deans, faculty, and students need to reevaluate the gap between the personal ideals that we say we value as a community and what our actions show. The administration should be taking a stance on this issue that is congruent with the Harvard Code of Conduct. This code outlines that the “expectation for mature and responsible conduct also encompasses accountability for one’s own well-being, including responsible decision-making regarding physical and mental health."

"The College takes all these diverse principles very seriously," the code adds. "Together they create a foundation for the responsible, respectful society that Harvard seeks to foster among its students, faculty, and staff.” Before offering an “out” to the community that this was another case of police using excessive force, the University president should have first taken the opportunity to emphasize and reinforce that we have a large part to play in the creation of a “responsible, respectful society.”

It’s time to break the cycle, take accountability for our own actions, and challenge those around us to take accountability for theirs. We must resist the urge to immediately pick a side and participate in “social justice” that does little to address the root causes of challenges we all came to this institution to help solve.

Jeffrey P. Prager is a mid-career master in public administration student at the Kennedy School.

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