Discourse and Discipline

Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences broaches two tough topics.

Hopi Hoekstra


An initiative to promote effective discourse and a separate proposal to broaden approaches to student discipline were advanced at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) meeting on December 5.

Although not signaled in advance, it was hardly surprising, in light of campus confrontations since Hamas terrorists attacked Israelis on October 7 and the resulting war, that Dean Hopi Hoekstra unveiled an initiative on “civil discourse” within the FAS. A “consistent theme” from her conversations with colleagues during the semester, Hoekstra said, was “the sense that we have an opportunity to further strengthen the conditions that enable academic discourse” within the faculty. She amplified:

Harvard’s community brings together a stunning array of perspectives, disciplines, life experiences and questions. It’s our distinctive institutional superpower. But to achieve our full potential for learning and knowledge creation, we also need an environment of mutual respect, openness, and genuine curiosity about insights beyond our own experience. That’s a combination that promotes intellectual dynamism and fosters critical thinking, empathy, and understanding.

I see nurturing the skills and frameworks of civil discourse, of constructive disagreement and debate, as an essential investment in our institutional effectiveness and key to preparing our students to engage meaningfully with the world’s complex challenges.

Accordingly, she announced, she appointed professor of government Eric Beerbohm, director of the Safra Center for Ethics and faculty dean of Quincy House, as senior adviser on civil discourse. Hoekstra told the faculty that he would focus on “modeling civil discourse for our community, creating programs to build the skills of civil discourse, and working with faculty colleagues to identify ways to embed civil discourse in the curriculum.”

Beerbohm said work on these priorities was already underway across the FAS, in collaboration with College leaders, teaching fellows, and others. A high school debater, he said he appreciated there were many formats for productive discourse beyond that kind of structured exchange. The Safra Center, he noted, already offers an “intercollegiate civil disagreement partnership fellowship” for undergraduates, who receive training in how to pursue and facilitate conversations about sharp differences, and has similarly begun a “fellowship in values engagement” for House tutors—again aiming to foster conversations about “core values in engaging, honest, and meaningful ways.”

Building upon these initiatives, begun earlier with the College, Beerbohm pointed to additional House-based programs next spring; a lecture series; work with the General Education and Expository Writing programs (where training and exercises on discourse could presumably be built into courses); and further support for teaching fellows, who lead most class discussions. In all, he said, the work was meant to address a “morally urgent issue” on a continuing basis throughout FAS.

That President Claudine Gay was at almost the same time concluding her testimony before a U.S. House of Representatives committee investigating allegations of antisemitism on campus only underscored the conditions in which Hoekstra’s initiative, and Beerbohm’s appointment, arose.

Separately, Hoekstra said that in response to colleagues’ questions about what to do in case classes were disrupted, divisional deans were disseminating information on best practices under such circumstances. By the spring semester, written guidance will be disseminated to faculty members and teaching fellows, and a training program on coping with such disruptions will be piloted by FAS’s office for faculty affairs. The latter work, she said, was initiated last academic year, before the current campus paroxysms.

(In response to a query about any incidents this semester, FAS’s spokesperson pointed to a walkout during the prior week—the only disruption of a class or academic building known. In response, Rakesh Khurana, dean of Harvard College, and colleagues sent an anodyne “reminder of policies and procedures” to undergraduates about the University statement on rights and responsibilities, and the commitment to “enforce all rules” which are “crucial as they foster open dialogue and freedom of speech”—the latter also explicitly affirmed in FAS guidelines.)



Later in the meeting, Khurana and dean for student services Michael Burke outlined a separate proposal to expand the kinds of actions the Administrative Board and the Honor Council can take in case of violations of the Student Handbook or academic policies. (The proposal arises from work begun in the spring of 2023 and should be understood as proceeding entirely apart from any current campus controversies or disciplinary actions that may result from them.) In brief, as Khurana reported, the proposal would expand such actions from the current roster of punitive measures (warning or admonishment, probation, requirement to withdraw, dismissal, or expulsion) by adding educational or restorative measures—consistent with the aims of an educational institution.

Thus, as explained in the documents underlying the proposal, a student guilty of an academic infraction might be required to meet with a coach and complete an educational program on the matter. Students found to have violated handbook rules could be assigned to “engage in the process of addressing the impact of their behaviors not only on themselves, but on their community.” Such measures might include written apologies to those adversely affected; restitution for financial loss and damage, mandatory educational programs; regular meetings with a College professional meant to supervise the students’ responses; community service with those adversely affected by the sanctioned behaviors; or other restorative measures.

The goal, Burke said, would be to “challenge each student” involved to think about how they and their behaviors relate to the community at large. According to the proposal, most peer institutions already incorporate language on educational programs or related measures in their tools for discipline.

The presentation prompted no questions or discussion from the faculty members attending the (online) meeting; it will come before FAS for formal legislative enactment at a future meeting, presumably in the spring semester.

Read more articles by: John S. Rosenberg

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