Harvard Shouldn’t Just Blame Students for Free Speech Woes

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by The Harvard Salient on January 19, 2024 and is crossposted here with permission.

About a week ago, Harvard announced its “Intellectual Vitality and Free Expression Student Summit,” which was co-hosted by PEN America, a non-profit dedicated to free expression. “Our hope is that through participating in this event,” the announcement stated, “you will feel more well versed in literacy on free expression issues… advocating for your rights… [and] civil discourse and respectful engagement.”

My hope is that Harvard can cut the posturing and actually start fixing these issues. That starts with administrators and faculty holding themselves accountable.

Harvard’s administration has proved itself more than prepared to pontificate about its ideals and recite verses from the mission of the college but incapable of nurturing an intellectually vital institution.

One of the keynote speakers at the event, which began yesterday and finished today, is Rakesh Khurana, the Danoff Dean of Harvard College. During my tenure as the president of Harvard’s student government, the Harvard Undergraduate Association, I worked closely with Dean Khurana. I believe that he genuinely cares about the student body. I am equally convinced, however, that Harvard’s fire cannot be put out from inside the house. They’ve been trying—and failing—for years already.

After all, I first engaged with Dean Khurana about his pursuit of “intellectual vitality” nearly two years ago. In April 2022, I received an email announcing that there would be a dinner on “intellectual vitality” as a part of a “College-wide project seeking to define and improve the spirit of discourse at Harvard.” Because I wasn’t able to attend the dinner, I was invited to share my thoughts over email. I wrote:

…this semester my roommate was publicly shamed over our house mailing list because she was accused of passing out copies of an anonymous, conservative newspaper [the Salient]… Students used that accusation as an opportunity to shame her… pro-Life and Christian views. To put it more generally: they were unhappy with the content of a publication they received, and rather than engaging with its content as a community, they chose to attack someone they perceived to hold similar views about another unrelated piece of their identity/ideology they took issue with. Even more impressive to me than this lack of intellectualism was the public silence from the tutors and house deans who had access to (and I’m sure saw) this taking place, if not in real time then at least afterward, and failed to make any kind of public statement to steer students back on the path or respectful discourse in search of truth that Harvard claims to hold so dear.

Had [my roommate] been a student of a minority faith group or a minority race/ethnicity, I highly doubt that the tutors and deans would’ve watched silently as this took place. Furthermore, when she later emailed a flyer for a Christian event that was being hosted on mental health, students added jokes about anti-depressants and the desire to unsubscribe to the public mail chain. I highly doubt that if this flyer had been for a Muslim or Sikh event those kinds of comments would’ve been tolerated by the tutors and house deans, and something would have been said about the need to respect and protect the diversity of our Harvard community. How can we reach for a spirit of intellectual vitality when the diversity we protect only covers certain groups, and leaves other groups of people out?

When we allow these kinds of behaviors to slip through the cracks they grow and metastasize into much uglier forms of ideological suppression and attacks. Earlier this year, Michael Cheng proposed that Harvard College move to a new form of student government. Rather than engaging with the ideas proposed, some students once again resorted to attacks—putting racist signs on his door and creating anonymous instagram accounts to spew even more hate speech in his direction. People across the University expressed public outrage at these attacks, and rightly so, but if we despise the fruit of the tree, we should examine its roots, and if we are moved to action by this example, we should also be moved to action by the former example, because they arise from the same motivating factors. If we do not address the former example, we will see more examples of the latter.

I concluded my email with this statement:

The bottom line is this: intellectual vitality CANNOT exist at a University where so many students feel a natural inclination to ad hominem attacks when they encounter an idea that they don’t like, and where that inclination goes unaddressed by tutors, House Deans, faculty members, and administrators.

The points I made were brought up during meetings on intellectual vitality that occurred in April 2022, and a student on the committee forwarded the email in its entirety to Dean Khurana and Professor Ned Hall.

Since that email, and since the original “College-wide project seeking to define and improve the spirit of discourse at Harvard,” there have been no noticeable changes to the campus environment. My roommate and I received torn up copies of the Salient at our door. During my tenure as student body president, it was publicly suggested that I should be impeached, not for any wrongdoing, but for my affiliation with a Christian student group and for using my 21st birthday to raise money for a pregnancy clinic. My Jewish friends tell me that they felt unsafe on campus long before October 7th and the hateful statement released by numerous student organizations blaming Israel for being attacked. Thus far, Harvard’s administration has proved itself more than prepared to pontificate about its ideals and recite verses from the mission of the college but incapable of nurturing an intellectually vital institution.

For these reasons, I find this summit performative. At an educational institution, it is reasonable to see the actions of students as a result of the education they have received. I do not separate the boldness with which students disrespect the viewpoints of my friends and I from the repeated failure of the leaders and educators of this institution to respond when it occurs. So why do students remain the sole focus of these initiatives? The administrators and faculty who stood by while this culture developed did not, it seems, have their own workshops to attend.

Moreover, even if the summit’s organizers were sincere, it was terribly designed. The event was held during winter break and was announced too late for most students to make the necessary travel arrangements. Why was it scheduled during the March for Life, meaning that most conservative students are away from campus, as organizers were informed months ago?

It disheartens me to see Harvard lose its reputation so quickly. For all the university’s faults, my life has changed for the better in many ways since I matriculated. I even became a conservative here. But I fear that it will not remain such a home if this initiative is the best idea administrators can come up with to salvage what’s been rotting for years.

Instead of lecturing more about kindness and understanding, our academic leaders need to admit that the breakdown in our community starts at the top. Pretty platitudes about intellectual vitality and free speech aren’t going to cut it.

Photo by jStock — Adobe Stock — Asset ID#: 193176338

One thought on “Harvard Shouldn’t Just Blame Students for Free Speech Woes”

  1. As far as I’m concerned, Harvard’s reputation went into the trash can when it fired Larry Summers back in 2006.

    And for what?

    There had been 20 years of prior feminist scholarship about how women thought differently then men, that the female cognitive process was different, that women processed information differently. On the basis of them being female and nothing else (this was before “T”).

    There was the classic Women’s Ways of Knowing that I had to wade through in my Master’s program — I essentially drove a double-winged snow plow through the holes in their logic, but it still was considered legitimate feminist scholarship. There was Carol Gilligan, who had taught at Harvard. There were feminists who argued that women were morally superior to men for reasons I couldn’t understand and on the basis of logic that I considered, at best, badly flawed.

    But this was academic feminist scholarship at the time.

    So Summers merely took their argument in the converse and asked if it were possible that men might have a better aptitudes in other things — and I think the furor was that the feminists realized that their arguments couldn’t be defended unless his could be as well. And Summers was only asking it as a hypothetical for purposes of discussion — heaven forbid an academic institution permit the discussion of controversial issues.

    And as to Cornel West — if West wanted to go work on the Bill Bradley campaign, fine — he should have taken a leave of absence or juggled his sabbatical schedule or something — you don’t just not show up to teach your classes for three weeks… Expecting a professor to show up to teach his students is not a racist position — there’s a good possibility that at least some of those students were Black, they didn’t deserve a professor teaching their classes???

    As to Rap music, which, as far as I’m concerned, sounds like a Diesel engine about to throw a piston rod out through the side of the engine block — something that will bring me out of a sound sleep. I don’t know what was on West’s album, but much of the Rap of the era tended to be rather vulgar and quite derogatory towards women — calling them whores and worse. Summers shouldn’t have the right to state that reflected badly on Harvard?

    Regardless of that, academic freedom is the right to study controversial topics, not an exemption from criticism for doing so. West had the right to defend the intellectual intrepidity of Rap music, but not to lynch anyone criticizing him for doing so. West should have argued his position and convinced his peers — much as the advocates of teaching engineering had done a century earlier.

    (Harvard once felt that engineering and the applied sciences had no place at Harvard.)

    Now I must admit that my opinion of Harvard was already declining a decade earlier when Harvard Law essentially purged everyone to the right of Vladimir Lenin, but I saw that as political. Firing Summer — a Clinton guy — was beyond the pale, even for Leftists.

    And do not forget that the No Confidence vote in the Faculty of Arts & Sciences was 218–185, by no means unanimous. And I heard later the opinion that there was “more free speech on the editorial page of the New York Times than at FAC meetings.”

    LyLena D. Estabine is right — the Harvard undergrads of today were in diapers when Larry Summers was fired — some hadn’t even been born yet. The students didn’t cause this problem, they can’t fix it, and Harvard shouldn’t expect them to.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *