Hope for Harvard?

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by Law & Liberty on March 18, 2024 and is crossposted here with permission.

Tacitus at the beginning of his Annals, after brilliantly summarizing all of Roman history in the space of a few paragraphs, ends by providing an answer to a question that must have arisen in the minds of his Roman readers. Why was it that the present generation offered such little resistance to the revolutionary transformation of the republic into a monarchy that Augustus had gradually brought about over the course of three decades? Senators used to stand up for their right to participate in governing the republic; indeed, in the previous century, they had fought a series of civil wars to defend that right. What was different about the present moment? Why did no one care about the end of the republic?

Tacitus answered that Augustus had been clever enough to make sure that the workings of government all looked the same. The senate and the popular assemblies still met and magistrates were elected as usual; the courts still passed judgments as before. Augustus controlled everything himself, of course, behind the scenes, but “the younger men had been born after the victory of Actium; most, even of the elder generation, had been born during the civil wars.” Then comes the famous line—few indeed were left who had seen the republic. Whole generations had come and gone, and those alive now simply had no idea how the old republican system had worked in its heyday. Hence, men accepted their slavery without even realizing they had lost their freedom.

I won’t belabor the obvious parallel to present-day America. Those of us who remember how America and its leading institutions used to be governed, and what they used to stand for, are growing fewer. The younger generation seems indifferent to their loss of liberty, mostly because no one has ever taught them it is a thing to be valued.

The passage from Tacitus occurred to me while reading some of the daily deluge of emails I get as a member of the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard (CAFH for short). The deluge comes from listserv discussions where we members, if we like, can engage in ongoing, daily debates on various topics and news items connected with academic freedom. The goal of these discussions overall is to keep Harvard an institution that helps its students to live flourishing lives and its researchers to contribute to the common good. We members believe that academic freedom is necessary to achieve this, and the pressures to politicize Harvard coming from various bureaucracies on campus are an obstacle to that goal. CAFH’s listserv discussions over the last six months, to me at least, have been invigorating. They have revealed to me that there is no shortage of brilliant people, even some potential leaders, aboard the Good Ship Harvard who could help it reverse course and return to its historic mission, were it possible to summon up the collective will to do so.

Many Americans who would like to do something about the woke seizure of major cultural institutions in our country have been forced to confront the following basic issue: (1) Is there any hope of de-politicizing captured institutions, extracting the DEI and Title IX and other bugs that are infecting their operating systems, and returning them to their normal activities? A number of universities now have done just that, and the results I’m sure will be eagerly watched. (2) Or is it better just to toss the old equipment on the junk heap of woke institutions, and build something entirely new, as has been done at the University of Austin in Texas? (3) Or perhaps it would be best to build citadels of academic freedom within politicized institutions, like Stanford’s Hoover Institution, Princeton’s Madison Program, or the University of Florida’s new Hamilton Center?  Thanks to the Claudine Gay affair many people have come to the conclusion that Harvard belongs to the second class of institutions that can’t be saved from woke capture. Are they right?  Doesn’t the mere existence of CAFH give a reason not to give up yet on Harvard?

Since its formation last year, CAFH has signed up 180 members, many of them distinguished senior professors, including four university professors (Harvard’s highest academic distinction). According to CAFH’s director, Flynn Cratty, however, 121 of these come from the professional schools: law, business, divinity, the Kennedy School of Government, and the medical school. In fact, a third of the total, 60 members, come from the medical school, dental school, and the School of Public Health. This reflects the little-known fact that the medical school boasts over 12,000 faculty members, about half the active physicians working in the Boston area. Only 59 CAFH members come from the one school that teaches undergraduates, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), which has 1,221 faculty members in all. Only 4.8%, in other words, of Harvard’s undergraduate teachers are worried enough about the university’s direction that they are willing to participate in the one forum where questions about university policies can be freely debated. There has been a nasty attempt to paint CAFH as “right-wing,” but this is simply untrue: my educated guess is that the vast majority are registered Democrats, like 88% of Harvard faculty (and 27% of Massachusetts voters), or “Unenrolled” like me (and 63% of state voters). I have personal knowledge of only four registered Republicans in CAFH (Republicans amount to only 8.38% of Massachusetts voters).

You won’t score any points by recommending to its attention the world’s greatest expert in Old Church Slavonic or Hittitology unless “they” happen also to score high in intersectionality.

As I see it, our biggest problem is—you guessed it—few indeed were left who had seen the republic. There aren’t very many younger faculty in CAFH. When trying to recruit more historians for the council from within the History Department, I have gotten more or less the same answer from the younger generation. Their response is, “What’s wrong with the way things are?” Most of my younger colleagues have lived their entire professional lives within DEI and Title IX regimes and have willingly made whatever adjustments were needed to go on with their teaching and to write their books. Going along to get along has worked for them. Whenever ukases have come down from University Hall (the administrative headquarters of FAS) urging us to align our courses and teaching practices to suit radical progressive priorities, few indeed were left who saw any reason to object, especially as the requested alignments were usually accompanied by tasty incentives in the form of grants or time off. In any case, the younger generation, by and large, don’t see anything wrong with having our History offerings interlarded with courses on environmentalism, identity politics, transhumanism, intersectionality, post-colonial theory, and the whole radioactive cargo of the politicized university.

So my answer to the first question above is, no, I don’t see any prospects right now for fundamental reform at Harvard. The only way to steer the ship back into port and keep it from leaking more prestige, public support, alumni loyalty, and financial stability is to appoint a strong young president committed to our traditional purposes. The office of the Harvard president constitutionally, at least on paper, has enormous powers; and there is no reason why a strong individual with a steady moral compass would not be able to do what Harvard’s great presidents like Charles William Eliot and James Bryant Conant have done in the past, when their presidencies helped Harvard achieve the goal of the world’s best university. But we will not find such a leader if the same person who was responsible for the disaster of Claudine Gay remains in charge of choosing her successor. That, unfortunately, seems to be exactly what is fated to happen. The Harvard Corporation has shown itself incapable of getting rid of the person or persons who have been responsible for dragging the university’s name in the mud for the last six months and reducing the value of Harvard degrees. A miracle could happen, but one must expect the Corporation’s current disgraceful behavior to continue. History, I suppose, will judge them. Maybe that will be my next book.

This is a sad conclusion for me to reach. I have taught at Harvard for almost 39 years. For about a decade, I taught the history of Harvard University in an undergraduate tutorial and acquired some sense of the enormous dedication and sacrifices that have gone into making Harvard what it is—or used to be. The extraordinary Harvard endowment didn’t grow into a fund greater than the GNP of the bottom 19 countries in the world combined just by having a few billionaires toss us a bone now and then. It was built by tens of thousands of alumni contributing over the course of a century relatively small sums to support mostly specific goals, many of which are no longer approved of by the woke university. Building Harvard’s marvelous museums and libraries was the work of many generations. When I came to Harvard in 1985, I heard the (to me) astonishing boast that it was possible to learn over 150 languages here if you could locate the persons who knew them, who were usually squirreled away somewhere in the bowels of Widener Library. Now that number is 45, somewhat fewer than are taught at the University of Michigan, and considerably fewer than the 75 taught at Yale. Such, apparently, are the fruits of “multi-culturalism.”

Maintaining and improving the quality of its faculty was once recognized as the most important duty of the senior faculty in the various departments, and the process was carefully overseen by the administration. The strenuous efforts to bring to Cambridge, Massachusetts, the world’s most famous philosophers, economists, historians, scientists, poets, and scholars of every description have now been overlaid by a higher purpose, which is making faculty appointments reflect the proportion in the American population of a few chosen minorities. If you are a young faculty member seeking to ingratiate yourself with the administration today, you won’t score any points by recommending to its attention the world’s greatest expert in Old Church Slavonic or Hittitology unless “they” happen to also score high in intersectionality.

What the university’s top leadership, including its governing boards, have done in the last couple of decades is to betray the trust of those who built Harvard into the great beacon of science and learning it once was. The builders of modern Harvard included the alumni and alumnae who gave of their plenty with intelligence and enthusiasm, confident that the institution shared their values. It was built by the great faculty deans for whom Harvard was once famous, whose own scholarly and scientific accomplishments won the respect of academics around the world. Our current leadership has also betrayed the public trust: the trust of our fellow citizens who have long given us lavish support in the form of grants and tax breaks in the belief that we, as an institution, were contributing to the common good. Half of the country now believes that we no longer do that. It’s a scandal and a shame, but it looks like no real changes are likely to happen at America’s premier woke university.

Photo by Sergey Novikov — Adobe Stock — Asset ID#: 390147364 & Edited by Jared Gould


  • James Hankins

    James Hankins serves as a History professor at Harvard University and holds the position of Senior Writer at Law & Liberty. Among his notable works are the books "Virtue Politics: Soulcraft and Statecraft in Renaissance Italy" and "Political Meritocracy in Renaissance Italy."

2 thoughts on “Hope for Harvard?

  1. “This reflects the little-known fact that the medical school boasts over 12,000 faculty members, about half the active physicians working in the Boston area.”

    Well there are 27,845 active physicians with a business address in Massachusetts, but the Med School faculty break down as follows:

    Total faculty: 12,213
    Tenured and tenure-track faculty on HMS campus in 11 preclinical departments: 192
    Voting faculty on campus and at affiliates: 6,730
    Full-time faculty on campus and at affiliates 10,438

    These numbers don’t make sense…

    Bear in mind there are FOUR medical schools in Massachusetts — also BU, UMass, & Tufts.


    1. Let me clarify — that 27,845 figure includes all the “residents” and otherwise licensed MDs who are licensed but still in training. As it has been explained to me, it is upwards of 7 more years after one is paying the Commonwealth for an MD license before one is “done” and “Board Certified” to do whatever one wants to do.

      Yes, Harvard has “it’s” hospitals — e.g. Mass General, Mass Eye & Ear, Brigham & Women’s — but the other medical schools have “theirs” — Tuft’s has Lahey, Bay State, and a lot of community hospitals in Metro Boston. UMass claims Worcester County, both its hospital in Worcester and others in the area — I’m not sure what BU “owns”, but they have to place their people somewhere.

      So you have a lot of “residents” (etc.) who aren’t Harvard — roughly the same number for each of the other three medical schools as Harvard — and then the same number of faculty MDs overseeing them. And then the MDs who aren’t affiliated with *any* medical school, who are in private practice.

      Hence I really question that 27,845 figure — and it isn’t like Harvard has a reputation for accuracy or factual integrity right now. And the numbers don’t add up — why are there 3,708 “full time” faculty who *don’t* have voting rights, and what is the distinction(s)?

      That said, Harvard Medical *IS* massive and there are a lot of folk who really don’t have time to deal with campus politics. Folks who want to be left alone so that they can do retina surgery or whatever they are really good in, are really interested in, and merely want to do without getting dragged into politics.

      Organizing them to put an end to the foolishness would be effective.

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