Can Harvard Win Back America’s Respect?

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by Law & Liberty on June 3, 2024 and is crossposted here with permission.

Harvard has had a very bad year. It began last summer with the Supreme Court’s verdict in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, which declared that the university’s admissions policies were unconstitutionally discriminatory—or in plain terms, racist. Then came October 7, when Hamas unilaterally broke a cease-fire to attack Israel, killing 1,200 and kidnapping some 250, with many of the horrific atrocities captured on camera. Harvard, along with many elite universities, issued public statements that revealed, to put it delicately, an absence of moral clarity. Then came the disaster of Claudine Gay’s testimony in Congress, followed by the humiliating exposé of her history of plagiarism, followed by her grudging resignation.

More recently we have had the further humiliation of our interim president’s negotiations with the small pro-Palestinian encampments in Harvard Yard. While other college presidents have had the nerve to call in the police and clear out illegal encampments, our president chose a two-state solution and negotiated. He gave relatively little away, but it was enough to reward the protestors for their efforts, guaranteeing more of the same in the future.

The undergraduate Administrative Board took the bold step of suspending the thirteen seniors involved in the protest pending further review of their cases, which meant they were unable to take their degrees in last week’s graduation ceremonies. However, on Monday of graduation week, a rump meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (only 15 percent of professors showed up, mostly activists) passed a motion (despite it being out of order) to allow the students to graduate. The faculty was overruled by the Corporation, Harvard’s senior governing board, in a surprising show of good sense. This did not prevent various forms of moral exhibitionism about the sainted Thirteen during the graduation ceremony itself, acerbically described in the conservative student paper, the Salient.

This turbulence and humiliation has not played well in the outside world, particularly among Jewish alumni or the 79 percent of Americans (according to a recent Harvard Caps/Harris poll) who support Israel over Hamas. Only Wednesday, Harvard graduate Senator John Fetterman, in a graduation speech at Yeshiva University, dramatically took off his Harvard hood (he has a degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government), saying it wasn’t right for him to wear a symbol of Harvard given its “inability to stand up for the Jewish community after October 7.”

I am one of those ivory-tower professors you read about (the view from the ivory tower, by the way, is amazing!) and I’ve followed most of these events from afar, via the listserv commentaries of my colleagues on the Council for Academic Freedom. CAFH, as it is known for short, is a Harvard faculty group founded in 2023. We have discussed over the course of the year various ways the university might act to prevent a further slide into the abyss. In the fall, the discussions were mostly about how to limit or eliminate the influence of the DEI bureaucracy (at Harvard the expression is EDIB: Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging), whether and how to prohibit diversity statements, how to stop the silencing of heterodox (i.e. non-woke) opinion, and how to introduce more viewpoint diversity. Much energy was expended on defining the scope and nature of academic freedom (my views are here), and considering what principles the university should declare and how they should be enforced.

This spring a frequent subject of discussion has been whether we should organize a university-wide faculty senate like Berkeley’s to fight back against the unaccountable power of administrators; what limits should be placed on activism; and how the university can recover its proper telos and maintain neutrality on issues of partisan politics. These discussions have borne some fruit. CAFH has some very impressive members, including a former president of Harvard (Larry Summers), many former deans and department heads, and we are in sympathetic contact with multiple members of the governing boards, the current interim president, and the new provost, whose appointment was one of the clearest signs of Harvard’s intention to reform itself.

Pressure from CAFH, concerned alumni, and some elements within the Harvard administration led Interim President Garber in April to announce the formation of the Institutional Voice Working Group. According to the Harvard Gazette, an official publication (wags call it Harvard’s Pravda), the group was tasked with “the question of whether and when Harvard as a University should speak on matters of social and political significance and who should be authorized to speak for the institution as a whole.” The group issued its report on Tuesday this week, and it was immediately accepted by the administration and endorsed by the Corporation as university policy. It is the clearest sign yet of the university’s intention to take more vigorous damage control measures and perhaps alter the ship’s direction entirely. Whether it will be enough to restore the immense respect Harvard once enjoyed with the public is, however, doubtful.

The Institutional Voice statement is commendable in certain respects. Its premise is stated in the first sentence, “The purpose of the university is to pursue truth.” The pursuit of truth is the university’s one moral imperative, which it must defend to the general public. The pursuit of truth requires “open inquiry, debate, and the weighing of evidence.” So far so good. The statement shows a firm grasp of the obvious, and the obvious is ordinarily difficult for academics to get their heads around. Derek Bok, a former Harvard president, once wrote that the definition of a professor is “someone who thinks otherwise.” For the eight members of the committee to converge on the obvious is an achievement.

Defending truth means ensuring the conditions of free inquiry and if “outside forces” (read: Governor DeSantis) “seek to determine what students the university can admit, what subjects it can teach, or which research it supports,” the university must defend its autonomy. This principle is an excellent and necessary one for private universities, but less defensible for public ones (as I’ve argued here).

The statement further argues that when the university makes a habit of issuing official statements that can be interpreted as politically partisan, it undermines its mission and makes those in the community who don’t agree feel alienated, even threatened. It should no longer issue such statements, and any persons who do so in the name of the university should be disavowed. Instead of issuing public statements in support of one group or another (read: Jews or Palestinian sympathizers) it should counsel unhappy students through its “pastoral arms in the different schools and residential houses to support affected community members. It must dedicate resources to training staff most directly in contact with affected community members.” Less official bombast, more therapy.

Overall, the statement is a step in the right direction, but I doubt whether it will do much to change Harvard’s image as a politically partisan institution. Princeton has had for some years a policy of “institutional restraint” on expressions of partisan politics, but that did not stop various entities within the university from speaking in its name to condemn the Supreme Court for overturning Roe v. Wade two years ago. The partisan political atmosphere at Princeton made it impossible for the university to disavow them. Despite the existence of CAFH (which represents less than 5 percent of the professoriate at Harvard), there is little reason to expect that Harvard’s faculty would exercise any more “restraint.”

In fact, it seems unlikely that either the Harvard faculty or its administration will engage with any project to depoliticize the university. (The number of persons in the Harvard administration has never been publicly acknowledged for obvious reasons, though the well-informed Ira Stoll estimates it at four times the number of faculty.) In part, this is a long-standing structural issue. As Bernard Bailyn explained many years ago in a brilliant and charming piece for the Harvard Magazine (“Fixing the Turnips“), American universities, even Harvard, from the beginning were public institutions meant to serve civic purposes. Unlike Oxford and Cambridge, they have always been uncomfortable with the Aristotelian idea that there are some things worth learning for their own sakes, apart from any social benefit they might yield. This attitude often mystified British scholars who came to American universities and observed their highly instrumentalized attitude to learning. Bailyn quotes an article by Isaiah Berlin, who had lectured at Harvard in 1949 and found ludicrous the faculty’s bad conscience—their uneasy sense that their scholarly interests were frivolous in view of the sufferings of mankind.

A student or professor in this condition wonders whether it can be right for him to continue to absorb himself in the study of, let us say, the early Greek epic at Harvard, while the poor of south Boston go hungry and unshod, and negroes are denied fundamental rights. … With society in a state of misery or injustice [the scholar, the aspiring student, feels] his occupation is a luxury which it should not be able to afford; and from this flows the feeling that if only he can devote some—perhaps the greater part—of his time to some activity more obviously useful to society, work for a Government department, or journalism, or administration and organization of some kind, etc., he might still with this pay for the right to pursue his proper subject (now rapidly, in his own eyes, acquiring the status of a private hobby).

Given this history, American universities are always going to have a strong sense of their duty to the outside world. The ideal of institutional neutrality, or of ordering a university’s activities towards a purely academic telos, is ultimately foreign to the American tradition of higher education. Princeton’s motto is perfectly typical in this regard: “Princeton in the nation’s service and the service of humanity.” There is all too slippery a slope between the idea of service to the public and the preaching of one’s partisan political views. As Jonathan Haidt showed years ago in The Righteous Mind, individuals on the left of the political spectrum have difficulty recognizing views other than their own as morally legitimate. (The right does much better in this respect.) Most faculty don’t think of their views as political at all; they think of them as simply moral. So long as most college faculties keep recycling their leftish political monocultures, universities committed to public service are going to sound to the great American public like the research arm of the Democratic party.

So what is to be done? Many people at Harvard still don’t care very much what persons in the outside world think, but after the experiences of this year, with large fall-offs in alumni giving and in the number of high school students applying for early admission, the more serious people here are ready to act. Given the likely hostility of most faculty and administrators to any project of depoliticization, the best hope of reform will have to come from the top.

Fortunately, the president of Harvard since the time of Charles William Eliot in the nineteenth century has always wielded considerable institutional power and resources. These could be used to project a more favorable image of the university and win renewed respect. A determined president who resisted the temptations of collegiality has the power to transfer, say, resources from the administration (does the university really need sixty Title IX coordinators? Do we really need quite so many vice presidents?) to the teaching staff. He has the power to see that departments hire distinguished faculty of his choosing in fields that are far from politics.

This used to be the job of our university president. I remember hearing Peter Brown, a famous Princeton historian of late antiquity, jokingly complaining that he could not come near Harvard without Derek Bok offering him a job. Derek Bok had a brain trust whose principal role was to search out distinguished faculty in all fields and bring them to Harvard. One opportunity cost of Harvard’s obsession with identity politics in recent years is that the search for excellent faculty has taken second place to hiring faculty with high intersectional scores. My experience of nearly forty years on the Harvard faculty has taught me that a department can always find some highly placed authority who will tell it that the faculty person it wants to hire is brilliant and doing ground-breaking work. Finding true excellence, however—finding the truly exceptional person whose achievements will make the best students want to study at Harvard—is an altogether more difficult task. But it has been done in the past and can be done again.

If a president and a few well-chosen deans know what excellence is, set real standards, and back the best candidates with ample funding, an institutional culture can quickly change. A president of Harvard also has the power to use the university’s extraordinary resources in public relations to foreground the work of its best scientists and scholars. He or she can make sure the world knows the wonderful things that are being done by our faculty and researchers. If the news coming out of Harvard is about its scientific and scholarly achievements and not about its political stances, public attitudes will change. Intemperate persons on the right who want to punish the university will have a harder time doing it if the country is more aware of the good things Harvard has been doing. A president can also, by precept and example, create an ethos among university administrators that public comment on partisan political issues is inappropriate. Such an ethos existed among administrators when I came to Harvard in 1985 and it should be possible to restore it. The university has traditions of science and scholarship unequaled by any university in the world and, under the right leadership, the country will come to value the university’s achievements again, and for the right reasons.

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  • 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."

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One thought on “Can Harvard Win Back America’s Respect?”

  1. In a word, no. Respect has to be earned. Apparently many (most?) of the faculty have no intention of making any effort.

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