Harvard’s ‘Abysmal’ Year Continues

Harvard’s year has been one for the history books. It ranked last in the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression’s annual college free speech survey, earning its own category of “abysmal.” It had quite possibly the worst response to Hamas’s October 7th terrorist attack on Israel in all American higher education. Its former president, Claudine Gay, rightly resigned after a disastrous appearance before Congress and plagiarism revelations in her weak academic record. It has lost major donors. It is facing lawsuits and Department of Education investigations for anti-Semitism. Many of its own faculty, including a former president, have publicly declared the need for significant reforms.

All of this might have been enough to convince the people who run Harvard that they needed to make some changes, and, in fairness, they have made a few small ones. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences did away with mandatory diversity statements in faculty hiring but replaced them with a service statement that could easily be used to weed out candidates on the same grounds. And it partially adopted institutional neutrality, leaving out a key and currently essential part: that political divestment to get the university to take sides is off the table—National Association of Scholars President Peter Wood saw this coming.

But, despite these small steps, or even because of how small they were, it was reasonable to remain skeptical about whether Harvard had really understood the message. Professor and Dean of Social Science Lawrence D. Bobo has made it eminently clear that it did not get through to him.

Rather than admitting the need for soul-searching and real, substantive changes, he argues in a new editorial posted to The Harvard Crimson that faculty who criticize Harvard publicly should be sanctioned by the university. Yes, you read that correctly. Instead of recognizing that Harvard is under intense scrutiny and suffering a reputational crisis because it has proven itself to be morally and intellectually corrupt, Professor Bobo thinks the way to restore calm to campus is to weaken the academic freedom of Harvard’s faculty even further.

Consider the irony: this institution consistently ranks dead last and occupies its own “abysmal” category for free expression on campus. This is the same place that forced Carole Hooven out for stating there are two sexes. Tyler J. VanderWeele was canceled for his views on marriage. Bobo himself participated in the punishment of Professor Roland Fryer, whose academic work Bobo had previously criticized. After a sexual harassment investigation recommended sensitivity training for Professor Fryer, Professor Bobo and the then-dean of FAS Claudine Gay suspended him for two years and closed his lab.

It is not surprising but still stunning that Professor Bobo thinks the solution to Harvard’s ills is to clamp down on faculty speech. His desire to punish faculty members who “incite external actors—be it the media, alumni, donors, federal agencies, or the government—to intervene in Harvard’s affairs” is yet another revelation of how firmly entrenched the problems at the university are.

His perspective, which implies that Harvard’s issues are merely a public relations problem rather than a profound moral and intellectual crisis of its own making, reveals a level of arrogance and entitlement shared by too many faculty members—an attitude that urgently needs to be corrected.

Calling donors and alumni “external actors” and suggesting they should have no role in the institution’s governance is wrong and insulting.

Alumni do participate, for example, in selecting Harvard’s board members. Donors are obviously entitled to have a say in how their donations are used. Alumni and donors are undoubtedly members of the Harvard community, and any self-respecting person associated with Harvard should demand that Bobo retract this claim and apologize.

Harvard relies on the media to share news about its research and societal contributions. The idea that its faculty should protect it from negative scrutiny suggests a cultish commitment to face-saving that is at odds with Harvard’s commitment to truth and only deepens public suspicion of the institution. It is also deeply ironic given that Bobo published a public editorial criticizing Harvard and its policies but would happily take away his colleague’s speech and limit their ability to voice their concerns.

Beyond all of this, universities, including private ones like Harvard, need to recognize that their autonomy and academic freedom are granted as part of a social contract from which American society expects to benefit. They should be generally free to govern their own affairs and allowed a broad degree of latitude out of respect for academic freedom, but academics have done such incredible damage to their own sector that the most recent poll shows that public confidence in higher education has dropped to 28 percent. When will they recognize just how strained their relationship to American society is and accept that they are largely to blame for it?

The idea that Harvard should respond to scrutiny by closing in on itself and punishing faculty who make public criticisms of the university is both perfectly on brand and so stunningly obtuse that it beggars belief. Bobo accuses his colleagues of “conscious action that would seriously harm the University and its independence.” However, he and any like-minded colleagues should realize they are harming Harvard.

As Dean of Social Science at Harvard, Bobo is powerful. He controls funding and has huge influence over the careers of scores of faculty; his remarks are clearly intended to threaten his colleagues to follow particular norms and suggest an informal policy that punishes particular speech and expression, which is the antithesis of Harvard’s mission of pursuing “truth.”

Bobo and his colleagues should remember the following warning from the American Association of University Professors’ 1915 Declaration of Principles:

If this profession should prove itself unwilling to purge its ranks of the incompetent and the unworthy or to prevent the freedom that it claims in the name of science from being used as a shelter for inefficiency, for superficiality, or uncritical and intemperate partisanship, it is certain that the task will be performed by others.

Rather than asking how they can protect themselves from richly deserved and necessary criticism, Professor Bobo and his colleagues should ask themselves what they can do to earn back the trust and respect of alumni, donors, and the American people.

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


  • Samuel J. Abrams & Steven McGuire

    Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Steven McGuire is the Paul & Karen Levy Fellow in Campus Freedom at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. Follow him on X at @sfmcguire79.

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3 thoughts on “Harvard’s ‘Abysmal’ Year Continues

  1. I live in Boston and am a Harvard alumnus. The frieze on the campus’s Philosophy Building reads: “What is Man that Thou Art Mindful of Him?” How drole it is to reflect that this benighted institution was founded almost 400 years ago as a Christian seminary. Only recently it accorded Cornel West, a two-bit racial hustler, the grand title “Professor in the Practice of Public Philosophy.” He has left the univerity and is now running for president.

  2. Interesting — I read Bobo’s article the opposite way — that academic freedom did not extend to things like getting arrested at illegal encampments, as six UMass Amherst professors were last month. (The Chancellor refuses to comment on what he is describing as “a personnel matter.”)

    Harvard right now is a paradox — the majority of Harvard faculty (and administrators) not only enjoy academic freedom but abuse it badly — except that they are also quite fascist and can not tolerate any dissenting viewpoints. Harvard’s been this way for at least 20 years now, and back then it was said that there is more free speech on the editorial board of the New York Times than there is in a Harvard faculty meeting.

    Academic freedom originated because Leland Stanford’s widow did not like having a Stanford Economics Professor saying that her late husband had exploited Chinese labor in building his railroad — which he had. That’s what academic freedom is supposed to be about — the ability to pursue truth — and that’s not what it is at Harvard right now.

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