Is Harvard Campus Conversation Constrained?

Some faculty members and students express concern

illustration of two individuals whose mouths have been taped shut

At Harvard, there are research areas that can’t be investigated, subjects that can’t be broached in public, and ideas that can’t be discussed in a classroom. So say a group of Harvard professors, now more than 120 strong, who have formed a Council on Academic Freedom to respond to perceived assaults on free inquiry and a climate of eroded trust that some faculty and students say stifles dissent. The group, formed this year, went public in early April when Johnstone Family professor of psychology Steven Pinker, one of the Council’s six co-presidents, and Harvard Medical School (HMS) professor of psychobiology Bertha Madras published an op-ed in the Boston Globe detailing the group’s commitment to “free inquiry, intellectual diversity, and civil discourse.” 

 “The reason that a truth-seeking institution must sanctify free expression is straightforward,” they wrote.  “…The only way that our species has managed to learn and progress is by a process of conjecture and refutation: some people venture ideas, others probe whether they are sound, and in the long run the better ideas prevail. 

Any community that disables this cycle by repressing disagreement is doomed to chain itself to error, as we are reminded by the many historical episodes in which authorities enforced dogmas that turned out to be flat wrong. An academic establishment that stifles debate betrays the privileges that the nation grants it and is bound to provide erroneous guidance on vital issues like pandemics, violence, gender, and inequality. Even when the academic consensus is almost certainly correct, as with vaccines and climate change, skeptics can understandably ask, “Why should we trust the consensus, if it comes out of a clique that brooks no dissent?”

On campuses nationwide, the dynamic that has led to numerous incidents in which professors have been “mobbed, cursed, heckled into silence, and sometimes assaulted,” they continued (citing data gathered by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression), is allegedly mirrored by a less publicly visible silencing of students, who, fearing reprisal, are unwilling to discuss certain topics in class. Pinker and Madras describe how such censorship—and self-censorship—takes hold in academic settings when a small number of committed individuals disrupt events, use social media to engage physical or electronic mobs, and slander their targets with “crippling accusations of racism, sexism, or transphobia in a society that rightly abhors them.” At the same time, they add, “An exploding bureaucracy for policing harassment and discrimination has professional interests that are not necessarily aligned with the production and transmission of knowledge. Department chairs, deans, and presidents strive to minimize bad publicity and may proffer whatever statement they hope will make the trouble go away.”

At Harvard, among the numerous faculty members contacted for this story, none were able to speak on the record about broad, detailed examples of speech or research that was inhibited—perhaps itself an indication that campus discourse has become constrained. However, in an interview, the Council’s executive director, Flynn Cratty, cited an instance in which student complaints “resulted in an eminent member of the faculty’s lecture slides being examined by administrators,” he said, “to check for content that might be offensive.” That professor told Cratty that as a result, he now self-censors his lectures. Two other faculty members told Cratty that they are concerned that the University’s “anti-bullying policy has been weaponized,” he said, “to punish dissent.” Cratty added that the Crimson student newspaper had turned down an op-ed submitted by the Council, noting that is “their prerogative.” A few weeks later, a majority of the paper’s editorial board published an op-ed of their own that Cratty characterizes as “broadly critical of the Council.” In it, the student authors cite “three examples of faculty conduct that they think shouldn’t be protected by academic freedom,” he said, adding that those cases—including one example in which “a law school professor was representing an unpopular client”—are “exactly the cases in which academic freedom should apply. It’s the unpopular ideas,” Cratty emphasized, “that most need protection.”

Separate from the Council’s work, Danoff dean of Harvard College Rakesh Khurana has been meeting with an Intellectual Vitality Committee, whose origins he traced to conversations that began “a little over two years ago,” when faculty members and students began to express “concerns about being able to speak openly in class” on certain topics. At the same time, he said, other students were expressing to the dean privately that there should be certain topics that Harvard should not teach because, by today’s standards, they are considered “sexist, classist, racist, or anti-semitic,” for example. 

Members of Harvard’s governing boards report being aware of these concerns: “Harvard is taking this very seriously,” Board of Overseers president Meredith Hodges ’03, M.B.A. ’10, told the Harvard Gazette in May, “because of its belief that knowledge is produced through free exchange of competing ideas. It’s central to Harvard’s educational mission. As a board, we’ve been hearing testimony directly from faculty and directly from students—having this access allows the board to see the challenges in the most clear-eyed way.”


The clearest mandate for addressing these expressed challenges may reside within faculty members themselves. As Pinker and Madras put it in their op-ed, “The coin of the realm in academia ought to be persuasion and debate, and the natural protagonists ought to be the faculty. They can hold universities accountable to the commitments to academic freedom that are already enshrined in faculty policies, handbooks, and in the case of public universities, the First Amendment.” At Harvard, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences adopted free speech guidelines in 1990, and outgoing President Lawrence S. Bacow has emphasized the importance of debate to the intellectual life of universities from the day of his installation. Speaking at Peking University in 2019, he said that great universities “are places where individuals are encouraged both to listen and to speak, where the value of an idea is discussed and debated—not suppressed or silenced. If we stand for truth,” he continued then, “we must appreciate diversity in every possible dimension. We must invite into our communities those people who challenge our thinking—and listen to them. Most of all, we must embrace the difficult task of being quick to understand and slow to judge.” Members of the group advocating for academic freedom would like to see a University-wide statement that commits all of Harvard to such principles.

The Council includes members from all the University’s schools and dozens of departments. One is Higginson professor of physiology and medicine and former HMS dean Jeffrey Flier, a co-president of the group who has had a longstanding interest in ensuring that a diversity of viewpoints be allowed to thrive on campuses nationwide. A member of the board of directors of Heterodox Academy, a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to advancing open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement in higher education broadly (Harvard has more members—45—than any other university, he says), Flier pointed in an interview to some recent successes in defending academic freedom that suggest the “pendulum may be swinging back” after a period in which campus free speech has been threatened. At Stanford Law School in March, for instance, dean Jenny Martinez condemned the actions of student protestors who had prevented judge Kyle Duncan from speaking at a student Federalist Society event. While supporting the students’ right to protest, she made clear in a forcefully worded statement that they would not be allowed a “heckler’s veto” in the future.

Other members of the Council are focused on developing solutions that involve educating students about the value of diverse opinions and teaching faculty members skills for handling sensitive or controversial topics. Vuilleumier professor of philosophy Edward “Ned” Hall, who is both a co-president of the Council and a member of the College-focused Intellectual Vitality Committee, said that the view of many on the Council is that a “diversity of viewpoints is a thing to be prized. It should be a strength. It’s the raw material out of which greater wisdom and understanding can be forged, but only if students are actually engaging across differences in a serious, respectful, and ideally, curiosity-driven manner. And the sense from the students, especially the ones involved in the intellectual vitality group, is that this is just not happening now.” For example, if a history class reads, discusses, and analyzes the Dred Scott decision, “that is pedagogically fine,” he says. “But if you are a student and you have no preparation for that,” an emotional reaction—“‘I’m being asked to take seriously some writing that explicitly dehumanizes black people?’—is totally intelligible,” he says, though he doesn’t agree that it is grounds for avoiding the study of such history.

In a course on argument and persuasion, Hall has developed a few strategies for overcoming differences of opinion and interpretation. First, he signals to students from the outset that by having discussions about controversial subjects they are making an investment in their own education. And then he asks small groups to work out logic puzzles together. For a complex puzzle, each student might initially follow a different path in their attempts to find the solution, disagreeing initially about how to solve it; but in the end, all converge effortlessly on a single answer without disagreement. And then the rest of the class reflects on the logic used to reach a solution. In this way, he demonstrates that “argumentation can be used as a way of forging a collective understanding. And then we move into talking about cases where the students will not end up agreeing, even though thoughtfully constructed argumentation as a vehicle for producing an understanding of a viewpoint still applies.” By being transparent about the aims of the exercise and by pointing out that “there are non-trivial emotional burdens that are not equally distributed” among the students, it is possible, he has found, to create a common sense of purpose and trust in the classroom.

Nevertheless, there is great diversity in the educational backgrounds of students at the College, Hall points out, “which suggests that, to move the needle, we’re going to have to think about the first-year experience differently. Maybe you start incorporating explicit lessons on how to engage across disagreement into the freshman Expository Writing program,” he says, noting that this is not an idea that has been endorsed by the Council, which is “still figuring out its priorities.” But Hall is clear on one point: “disappointing to me,” he said, “is the way that the administration has been dragging its feet on its role.” He would like to see “a well-crafted statement of values, or reassertion of values” that are already in place, explaining “why intellectual diversity matters, how important it is for students to be able to engage in a serious, respectful way across disagreement, and how college is not supposed to be a place…” where students are “shielded from ideas that make [them] uncomfortable.”

Trumbull professor of American history and director of the Schlesinger library Jane Kamensky, another Council co-president, shares Hall’s hope that Harvard will think about what needs to be done to impart to students the expertise—in navigating difficult ideas across complex political landscapes, in building coalitions with people with whom they might disagree—they will need for democratic self-governance. “These are vital, learned skills,” she says, “and faculty training is going to be a big piece of this.” Nationally, she points out, much of the language used when talking about the issue of academic freedom is focused on preservation and defense. At Harvard, she would like to see more emphasis on instruction. Duke University has an exemplary program for this, she said, and Harvard has the beginning ingredients in co-curricular programs such as the intercollegiate civil disagreement partnership fellowship offered through the Safra Center for Ethics. That, she said, is the kind of program from which the University could learn.

Even as the Council itself works to forge a consensus on how best to proceed, alumni have signaled support for the group’s aims: by early May, donations already totaled about $150,000, according to executive director Cratty. Though still in the early stages of organization (co-president and Watson professor of law Jeannie Suk Gersen is reportedly drafting bylaws) the group, which describes itself as “diverse in politics, demographics, disciplines, and opinions,” plans to conduct surveys and offer workshops, lectures, and courses on academic freedom. The first public event, a lecture on the philosophy of campus free speech by Hall with a response from Conant University Professor Danielle Allen, will take place on September 20, just as the academic year begins.

Read more articles by Jonathan Shaw
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