Bacow Defends Harvard's Response to Ukraine Crisis Amid Calls for Further Action


More than 50 days into the war in Ukraine, Harvard affiliates are still calling for more public action and concrete support from the University for those affected by the conflict.

In opening remarks for a virtual panel four days after Russian troops invaded Eastern Ukraine, University President Lawrence S. Bacow decried Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “wanton aggression,” pledging “to share knowledge of Ukraine” and “speak against cruelty.”

Bacow’s speech was published online and posted to University social media channels. Deans from four of Harvard’s graduate schools followed suit.

The Office of the Vice Provost for International Affairs compiled a list of resources on its website for affected affiliates, including links to Harvard offices, contact information for requesting school-specific accommodations, emergency funding options, and resources for scholars abroad.


But affiliates affected by the crisis say Harvard should do more.

“President Bacow has the power to condemn this,” said Taisa Kulyk ’22, whose parents hail from Ukraine. “He has the power to share what we can do, or to also support students here, and international students.”

Kulyk called the remarks Bacow published online “a very weak stance,” noting that Harvard has publicized University statements on other topics via emails directly to all affiliates.

Bacow defended his decision to publish his personal statement on the invasion online, as opposed to emailing it, in an April 8 interview.

“When people get a message from me, I want them to read it because they know it’s important, and if people are getting too many of those, then it loses its impact,” he said, noting that email blasts sometimes go to students, staff, faculty, and over 400,000 alumni.

“Frequently you will find, if you go back and look, that in response to a whole series of events I haven’t sent blast emails, but rather I found a way to make remarks and then I post them to my website,” Bacow added.

Bacow said producing an institutional response to current events requires a lengthy review process that often takes more time than if he drafts a personal statement, like his remarks on Ukraine.

“One of the challenges when events occur in real time — if you want the whole institution to respond — is to vet things with 12 deans, with 12 Corporation members, with the Alumni Association,” he said.

Beyond calling for public statements, a group of Ukrainian, Russian, Belarusian, Kazakh, and American students wrote a petition to Harvard administrators last month, which garnered more than 650 signatories and asked for academic and mental health support, financial aid, and immigration assistance. Two Russian organizers behind the petition, Alexander Zhigalin ’23 and Polina Galouchko ’23, said the University did not respond to the requests.

“We would like to hear a response from the University about those suggestions,” Galouchko said. “They could be like, ‘Okay, we cannot do this for those and those reasons. But, here’s an alternative.’”

She added some students are “just not receiving the help that they urgently need.”

“The administration has been very hesitant implementing those blanket policies or centralized policies, because I think they still firmly believe that it’s best solved on a one-on-one basis and case-by-case,” Galouchko said.

Zhigalin said students have been told to reach out to their resident deans for specific support, but said the resident deans “also do not know what to do.”

“The resident deans just have nothing to direct us to,” he said.

University spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment.

Zhigalin and Galouchko said the war in Ukraine shows how Harvard lacks the infrastructure to support its students when any international crises arise, adding that affiliates from other conflict zones like Afghanistan and Syria faced a similar lack of institutionalized support.

“We think it’s a general issue that’s uncovered by these circumstances, rather than created,” Zhigalin said.

Bacow said Harvard has “done a lot to try and help people understand where we’re at, the resources that we've made available to students.”

For Kulyk, the sign of the Ukrainian flag flying over University Hall in the Yard is “symbolic.” But it is also a reminder of the continual suffering of individuals overseas, she said.

“Every day that the flag remains flying, that’s a reminder to everyone in our community here that the war is still going on, and that we need to do more,” Kulyk said.

The Crimson interviews University President Lawrence S. Bacow three times per semester during the academic year. Click here to submit a question for consideration in our next interview.

—Staff writer Cara J. Chang can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CaraChang20.

—Staff writer Isabella B. Cho can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @izbcho.