In April 2017, Harvard announced its decision to change the lyrics of its alma mater, “Fair Harvard." The song, which students have been singing since its composition in 1811, features the final line, “Till the stock of the Puritans die,” a nod to the University's religious roots.
The Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging at Harvard sponsored a competition to change the line to “affirm that Harvard’s motto, Veritas, speaks to and on behalf of all members of [the] community, regardless of background, identity, religious affiliation, or viewpoint.”
Harvard has selected 20 choices from a list of 168 choices to replace the alma mater's final line. Until the end of October, Harvard community members are invited to comment on this short list. At the start of the spring semester, a panel of judges will choose a winner.
In 1994, Harvard changed the lyrics of its alma mater by replacing the lyric “Thy sons to thy jubilee throng!” with “We join in thy jubilee throng,” to reflect the school's inclusion of girls.
Critics of the most recent decision have claimed that the change will undermine Harvard’s rich history. Some students, in contrast, have celebrated the move - which they view as Harvard prioritizing inclusivity. Linda Lee, a freshman at Harvard, believes that this shift is, “necessary and appropriate if it promotes forward change.”
“Harvard’s mission to be more inclusive is a lot more important than keeping things ‘the same,’” Lee said. Unlike Harvard's alma mater, “Old Nassau” contains no language with religious connotations. However, the University made a similar decision to that of Harvard by changing the words of its alma mater in the winter of 1987 to be more inclusive towards women.
The University's original alma mater, “Old Nassau,” featured the lines, “In praise of Old Nassau my boys,” and “Her sons will give, while we shall live,” because at the time of its inception in 1859 the University was an all-male school. In the fall of 1969, when women first matriculated at the University, no one thought to change the alma mater.
It wasn’t until 1987, when Janet Sarbanes ’89 called for a lyric change in a column in The Daily Princetonian, that the decision to change the song was made. The words “my boys” and “her son” were replaced by “we sing” and “our hearts” respectively.
Despite the referendum's controversial nature at the time, the student body overwhelmingly passed the Undergraduate Student Government referendum on the alma mater's lyrics, with less than 7 percent of undergraduates voting against the proposal. Sarbanes wrote in a 1987 issue of the ‘Prince’ that the decision was a “really important step that shows Princeton's moving in the right direction.”
Jack McCarthy ’69 reported that although a small minority of alumni who were accustomed to the original version of the song would still sing the old lyrics as a form of protest, most accepted the change.
“I thought it was a great idea, and appropriate because the language that they had taken out reflected an all-male institution,” said McCarthy, who had to adjust to singing a new version of the song he had known since he was 5 years old.
Widespread acceptance of the Harvard lyric changes, however, has not come without some hesitation.
“While these changes are important, Harvard can't expect to be perfectly inclusive just with this. We still have a lot to improve within the culture of our school itself,” Lee said.
Indeed, Sarbanes expressed this same sentiment in her 1987 ‘Prince’ article.
“We just have to remember that it is a symbolic step and that there are a lot of practical issues that still need to be addressed,” she wrote.