Harvard Pressures Freshmen to Sign a Moral Pledge

Taking a pledge.jpgHarvard College’s Class of 2015 found something unprecedented awaiting their arrival on campus: an ideological pledge. It was framed as a request for allegiance to certain social and political principles. No such request had been made of Harvard students since the college’s founding by Puritans in 1636.

First-years are being pressured to sign a “Freshman Pledge” committing them to create a campus “where the exercise of kindness holds a place on a par with intellectual attainment” — all in the name of “upholding the values of the College” including “inclusiveness and civility.”

The request – originating from the Dean of Freshmen, in consultation with the secretary of Harvard’s feared disciplinary tribunal, its Administrative Board, and communicated via dormitory tutors who are the students’ main liaison with the administration – asked that students commencing their four-year journey of intellectual and spiritual awakening take a position on social and political issues that are much debated in our contentious times. “Inclusiveness” and “civility” have become, for better or worse, buzz words among those who argue over the extent to which harsh rhetoric should be avoided in the name of providing students protection from the hurt feelings that often result from vigorous arguments.

For Harvard’s incoming freshmen, that debate has been decided in their absence, presented as gospel at the very start of their student experience. Dean of Freshmen Thomas Dingman has decreed Harvard’s official position and established the direction in which every student’s “moral compass” (Dingman’s words) must point. Dingman’s interpretation of Harvard College’s values is intellectually and morally weak: he privileges kindness, inclusiveness, and civility, almost entirely ignoring the cardinal virtues (prudence, temperance, justice, and courage), the theological virtues (love, hope, and faith), Benjamin Franklin’s 13 virtues (including cleanliness, chastity, and humility), Aristotle’s intellectual and moral virtues, and everybody else’s. In a world where there is such a difference of opinion as to what truly is virtuous and what is merely vacuous, it seems not to have occurred to Harvard’s Dean of Freshmen that this arena is one for a student’s intellectual and moral exploration, rather than a fit subject for administrative fiat.

Harvard pledge.jpgAnd thus, Dingman decided to prevail on his young charges to sign their names to the pledge of their allegiance to Harvard College’s morality, as defined by the dean’s office, which was to be framed and hung in the entry to each Harvard freshman residential house. There the pledge would hang all year for all to see whose signature was affixed and, in contrast, whose designated signature line remained conspicuously blank, indicating a refusal to sign onto the values that four years of education must not undo.

The profound pressure to sign was quickly noticed by Harry Lewis, a professor of computer science and former (for eight years) Dean of Harvard College, who posted the news and his commentary on his widely-read “Bits and Pieces” blog. Lewis noted Harvard’s 375-year history of freedom from oaths, quoting Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison, author of the authoritative 1935 volume The Founding of Harvard College: “Our founders,” Morrison warned, “knew from their English experience that oaths are powerless to bind conscience.”

Lewis further pointed out that Harvard President Nathan Pusey, during the difficult McCarthy red-baiting years, “objected to US legislation that would have demanded that certain scholarship recipients swear to uphold the Constitution,” since “loyalty oaths, even ones affirming unexceptionable principles, are, as Pusey put it, ‘Odious.’” Lewis concluded his critique of the new freshman oath by pointing out that “a student would be breaking the pledge if she woke up one morning and decided it was more important to achieve intellectually than to be kind,” noting, not so incidentally, that the faculty had not been asked to approve of such a pledge, much less urged to swear its own allegiance to “this communitarian commitment.”

Harvard is not entirely without blemish. It had been complicit in the Red Scare in the 1950s, moving to fire American history professor Raymond Ginger for declining to reveal whether he had been a member of the Communist Party.

While an oath of allegiance for students or faculty is unprecedented at Harvard, this was not the first time that some Harvard administrator attempted to pressure students to adhere to an official view of the good society and of the student’s duty to honor that view.

In 2002, the then-dean of the Harvard Business School caused the resignation of the editor of the school’s newspaper, in which an editorial cartoon had dubbed those who ran the Career Services office “incompetent morons” due to chronic computer malfunctions. Disciplinary action was initiated, and the dean insisted that the newspaper limit itself to “respectful discourse” since its editors were, after all, “member[s] of the Harvard Business School community, and as such, we are expected to treat each other respectfully.” The dean backed down after pressure from the public and after the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit that promotes academic freedom on university campuses, reminded Harvard of its role “as a great liberal arts institution.”

The administration of HBS thus reconciled itself to living with a free student press,but in 2010, Dean Martha Minow of the Harvard Law School issued a public reprimand to a law student who, in a private email to a group of friends that one of them leaked, expressed a desire to be provided with scientific research on the relationship, if any, between race and intelligence. Dean Minow apparently did not mind publicly excoriating a student for merely expressing academic interest in such a hot-button question. Minow stated that “responsibility” in a “community dedicated to intellectual pursuit and social justice” such as the law school does not encompass the “insensitivity” of making “hurtful” suggestions. Minow did not seek formal discipline but took care to note that the student had apologized. The student had learned her lesson: “I understand why my words expressing even a doubt” about the law school’s orthodoxy on the issue, she wrote, were so offensive.

There have been occasional feints in the direction of pressuring students to conform to some individual administrator’s personal sense of the student’s obligation to engage in only civil discourse.  But Harvard has never, until now, expected so much conformity to the college’s purportedly official position on questions which, within a university campus as well as in the society outside the ivy walls, free men and women have long been allowed, indeed encouraged, to debate. Although Dean Dingman has reversed course and announced that the pledges will be posted without the signatures, he has insisted that Harvard freshmen still need to know what Harvard’s moral “expectations” are, so as to live and speak accordingly.

The attempt to impose one’s values on others, whether by mandatory ideological oaths or officially sponsored “voluntary” pledges, is hardly unique to Harvard; such exercise of power has proven attractive to those in positions of authority everywhere. For this reason, academic institutions have long had to take special precautions to protect academic freedom and free speech and thought.

Pressure on the University of Chicago to throw its institutional weight around on moral issues led to the 1967 “Report on the University’s Role in Political and Social Action,” produced by a distinguished faculty committee chaired by professor and constitutional law scholar Harry Kalven, Jr. “There is no mechanism,” wrote the Committee, “by which [a university] can reach a collective position without inhibiting that full freedom of dissent on which it thrives.” Such “neutrality of the university,” the report opined, is rooted not in “indifference and insensitivity,” but rather “out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints.” A university, in other words, “is a community which cannot resort to majority vote to reach positions on public issues.”

And, at Yale, a 1974 report promulgated by a committee headed by Yale professor of history and legendary champion of academic freedom C. Vann Woodward stated that “[t]he history of intellectual growth and discovery clearly demonstrates the need for unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable” and that “[i]t may sometimes be necessary in a university for civility and mutual respect to be superseded by the need to guarantee free expression.” The committee rejected the argument made by some at Yale that formal sanctions should be imposed upon those whose speech violates the “social and ethical considerations” entailed by “a decent respect for others,” stating that such censorship would “make the majority, or any willful minority, the arbiters of truth for all.”

Perhaps Harvard’s freshman dean should have consulted some of the distinguished authorities who have opined against the promulgation of orthodox, officially approved or sponsored ideological and social positions by those in power. He would have found not only the likes of Pusey, Kalven, and Woodward, but also Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson who, at the height of the Second World War, led his fellow justices to invalidate a mandatory flag pledge statute in West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette (1943). “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation” wrote Jackson, “it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith” in it. Jackson’s reasoning applies as well to purportedly “voluntary” pledges promulgated by those in positions of power over their young and vulnerable charges.

If a nation engaged in a war to save its civilization from the scourge of fascism and Nazism can abide a child’s conscientious objection to pledging allegiance to its own flag, surely Harvard should not have been pressuring its freshmen to publicly sign onto a dean’s conception of the approved and hence official college position on such personal and philosophical values as “inclusiveness,” “civility,” and “kindness.” Perhaps the Dean of Freshman should even reconsider his revised plan to post the signatory-free pledge in each dorm. Professor Lewis has announced his intention to “propose legislation to prevent pledges like this from being promulgated in the future.” The leaders of the next generation must not be taught that virtue resides in a pledge of fidelity to the values of those who hold power over them.


  • Harvey Silverglate

    Harvey Silverglate, a Boston criminal defense and civil liberties lawyer and writer, is the co-founder of The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (www.thefire.org). He co-authored The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America's Campuses.

16 thoughts on “Harvard Pressures Freshmen to Sign a Moral Pledge

  1. When the Right governs, dissent and protest are cherished rights (remeber 1970?). When the Left governs, dissent and proest are uncivil. Communists clamor and shout until they get power. After that, thought crimes are invented.

  2. “Nazi Germany Anyone? Turn this on it’s head and imagine the MSM left wing uproar if the college actually made the students sign a pledge to not consume illicit drugs, partake in pre marital sex on campus and mandatory church services on Sunday?”
    I’d be ok with rules about drugs and sex. Requiring church service attendence assumes theism and within theism assumes Christianity, so not ok with that.
    I really don’t see the uproar over requiring a minimum level of civility and kind dealings between students and staff.
    Is it really neccessary for American students to be disrespectful a**holes all the time?
    I mean, we already have that reputation worldwide as it is.
    Is it neccessary to prove the world right?

  3. Nazi Germany Anyone? Turn this on it’s head and imagine the MSM left wing uproar if the college actually made the students sign a pledge to not consume illicit drugs, partake in pre marital sex on campus and mandatory church services on Sunday?
    Freakin hypocrites..I know, that’s an oxymoron with the left of today.

  4. Steve, all civilizations were built upon the words of men from a long time ago. And of course its pertinent to study how the US was formed and who formed and on what principles (whether or not they practiced those principles in their own lives is another matter, and one that is examined on campuses everywhere now).
    However there’s no reason why a University cannot create its own guidelines for student behaviour in the here and now. Its obviously neccessary. What’s that college that someone else wrote about here – the Ohio college that starts with A and that closed down? There was a whole article about it and how the campus atmosphere was hostile with students shouting at each other during class. Antioch, that’s it.
    Implementing a kindness rule is the minimum we can do in a country who’s young people go to college with the express purpose of partying and getting laid.

  5. “You cannot have Liberty in this world without what you call Moral Virtue, and you cannot have Moral Virtue without the slavery of that half of the human race who hate what you call Moral Virtue.” Wm Blake

  6. Useful to know, anyway, that “community” is the new buzzword employed to suppress speech and expression that the academic leftists don’t like.
    I have my degrees from public universities, two of them obscure beyond their home states, so lacking the finesse and polish of an Ivy League education, I was under the impression that intellectual achievement is the raison d’etre of a university.
    For lessons in kindness you volunteer at the Humane Society.

  7. Secular colleges are spectacularly incompetent at forming character in young adults, and even more so at performing character transplants. For all their talk of ethics, they feel no responsibility to remove themselves from performing operations for which they lack all demonstrated skill. They are moral quacks.
    Having discarded the idea of transcendent virtue, they must settle for the shouting port of a room in the modern equivalent of England’s old Bethlehem mental hospital (from which the word ‘bedlam’ is derived). Happy shouting, Dean Dingman!
    Veritas pro Christo et Ecclesia – Truth for Christ and the Church (original motto of Harvard University)

  8. Hmmm. Requiring college freshmen to behave like civilized adults — what a novel concept. While I doubt that this “pledge” will have much effect on boisterous freshmen, I doubt that it is something that people need to file a lawsuit over.

  9. “Also, kindness, inclusiveness and civility will be interpreted differently by different individuals.”
    Perhaps, but the only one that matters is the institutional version. And if you’re deemed to have violated it, your own interpretation is worth a big pile of nothing.
    See FIRE, ADF’s Center for Academic Freedom, etc.

  10. While it might seem innocuous, what is missing in my interpretation, what the penalties for violating the oath – or not even signing?
    With Harvard located within ear shot of Boston’s historic Fenway Park, how much “civility” do you expect between fans of the Red Sox and the New York Yankees in a Game 7? Anything said, whether in jest (or not), could be construed as being uncivil.
    A discussion of politics, between a TEA Party member (it is Boston after all) and a President Obama supporter may also get heated. Again, one party may construe the other as being uncivil.
    There in lies the problem. Who makes the determination of what is civil and what is not?

  11. Om, you say, “Its [sic] 2011. There’s no reason why we need to be mired in the conceptions of men from a long time ago.”
    Conceptions like the right to peacably assemble? Or maybe to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Western civilization is built on the conceptions of men from a long time ago, and we’re presently engaged in an act of collective suicide, tearing down those conceptions that have provided more liberty and encouragement to mankind than any other way of life.
    It doesn’t require a code to “be nice,” it requires a mindset that no signing of a piece of paper will affect or effect.

  12. Every time I try to qoute something from the article itself I am unable to post.
    Its 2011. There’s no reason why we need to be mired in the conceptions of men from a long time ago.
    Besides, kindness, inclusiveness and civility are just different ways of saying virtuallly the same thing as Ben and Aris.
    Also, kindness, inclusiveness and civility will be interpreted differently by different individuals.
    They are trying to establish an ethical code on a campus and I can’t say its a bad thing considering that kindness and civility are virtues that many young Americans seem to be lacking and never taught at home by their parents.

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