The Interim President’s Agenda

Alan Garber on campus speech, academics, and his other Harvard priorities

Alan Garber

Alan M. Garber, interim president | PHOTOGRAPH BY NIKO YAITANES/HARVARD MAGAZINE

Alan M. Garber ’77, Ph.D. ’82, physician and economist, provost since September 2011, unexpectedly became interim president January 2, when President Claudine Gay resigned. The shift in physical offices was trivial: a right turn, rather than a left in the small suite on the first floor of Massachusetts Hall where Harvard’s senior leaders work. The change in responsibilities, at a time of crisis for the University, is immense. In a conversation in his office February 15, Garber, ever serene, reviewed his priorities, from the most urgent concerns of an interim leader at this moment—dealing with free speech challenges on campus, and with antisemitism and Islamophobia in the wake of last October 7—to the continuing academic matters that are any president’s responsibilities.

“We have experienced a series of crises,” Garber said. “But as so often with crises, there is opportunity.” Emphasizing the latter first, he continued, it is clear that “our community wants to move forward” to address the problems and tensions manifest on campus since last fall while also doing everything possible to make “Harvard as great as it can be in its primary mission of teaching, education, and research.”

•Speech. Among his priorities, Garber placed special emphasis on “longstanding challenges, particularly when it comes to speech.” Students, he said, feel that they cannot speak freely in class. They, professors, and staff members fear that if they say “the wrong thing,” they will face “dire consequences.” In general, he said, members of the community “need to think far too carefully before they speak” because of those consequences, and accordingly often feel the risk is not worth the effort.

Given that definition of the problem, as a longstanding concern, Garber said, “Today, there is greater support than ever for addressing these problems in a serious way.” The apparent inhibitions about speech, he amplified, are not “Harvard-specific.” If anything, observers of the matter sense a “generational change,” as he put it—“a general feeling among younger people in particular, but not solely among younger people, that speaking about difficult topics is a minefield.” That inhibition, he continued, “is a threat to the academic mission”: absent vigorous debate, accompanied by careful listening to opposing points of view and the willingness to change one’s mind, it is impossible either to advance knowledge or to form the broad perspectives which underlie citizenship and engagement in addressing the world’s problems.

(Garber was loath to speculate on the roots of this phenomenon, but one could readily speculate: the increasingly fierce polarization of American political discourse, accompanied by marked coarsening of the language in which it is conducted; a generation growing up with the unbridled assaults waged on social media; and, among striving young achievers like the people admitted to Harvard College, a real hesitancy to make a “mistake” that might jeopardize their chances at subsequent rungs up the ladder, like getting into a favored professional school or landing a plum internship or job. Whatever the reasons, the self-inhibition is clearly at odds with an academic model premised on discovery through civil, but free-ranging, debate.)

Asked about the means at Harvard’s disposal to create conditions favorable to such discourse—urgently necessary in the explosive atmosphere occasioned in the aftermath of Hamas’s terrorist assault on Israeli citizens October 7 and Israel’s resulting war on Hamas in Gaza—Garber pointed to efforts across campus, notably in the College and the Law and Harvard Kennedy Schools. In the College, he cited the Intellectual Vitality program—both a way to understand the challenges better and “to create conditions so that students, in particular” can speak more freely. Within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences more broadly, he pointed to professor of government Eric Beerbohm’s role in encouraging civil discourse, from classrooms to students within the undergraduate residences. At the Law School, he continued, it has been made clear to students that “you are here to be exposed to other points of view” as an essential part of training to be a lawyer: to hear others’ arguments better, and to learn how to express perspectives that may not be one’s own (a core responsibility in representing clients). Across the community, Garber said, attendance was robust at the January “Harvard Dialogues” events devoted to highlighting discourse.

The intent was to “make it clear that there are certain places where protest should not occur, such as classrooms,” in order to make room for community members to protest and express political views elsewhere.

Alongside these encouragements to listening and participating in exchanges, Garber—with support from all the deans—also advised community members, in a January 19 message, about their responsibilities and the expectations about their behavior attached to the exercise of free speech within the academy. He acknowledged hearing from outside the University about perceived speech problems on campus. “People have many perceptions” about what is or is not occurring—particularly, the degree to which protests may be disrupting academic life. The January message, based on the University-wide Statement on Rights and Responsibilities (created after the disruptive crises of the late 1960s), he said, clarified the “time, place, and manner of protests.” The intent was to “make it clear that there are certain places where protest should not occur, such as classrooms,” in order to make room for community members to protest and express political views” without interfering with “the core work of the University” (such as students studying in their rooms or libraries, or scholars pursuing research in their offices and laboratories). Thus, carrots and sticks are being deployed in support of free speech.

Garber said the University has been making its speech efforts known externally, particularly to those “most dedicated to Harvard,” such as alumni, and in outreach to peer institutions facing similar issues. (Whether the broader world is taking notice after the battering news coverage during the fall semester is a separate matter.) Given the breadth of the work underway and the caliber of the speakers Harvard has been able to bring into these conversations (including this Radcliffe discussion), he said, “I’m very proud of our efforts” to date.

“I am the interim president,” Garber acknowledged, “but the problems we need to deal with are not interim problems.”

Other contemporary campus concerns. Asked about other concerns among the faculty members, alumni, donors, and others with whom he has spoken, Garber said the University had been “hearing that we need to address the problems of antisemitism along with other kinds of hate like Islamophobia” and anti-Arab bias. He has chartered task forces on each form of hatred, intended to focus on the root causes and recent history of such bias on campus and to recommend approaches to address the problems; cochairs are in place, and the full membership is expected to be named soon.

Garber said he has also heard demands for “greater intellectual diversity on campus.”

Both themes, he said, buttress community members’ “broad endorsement of Harvard leaning in heavily on advancing our core missions of teaching and research.”

Continuing priorities: the presidential agenda. “I am the interim president,” Garber acknowledged, “but the problems we need to deal with are not interim problems.” Accordingly, as president, he will attend to Harvard’s ordinary business. He noted that the search for a successor Kennedy School dean is well underway, and that the search for a Graduate School of Education dean would begin soon. As provost, Garber noted, he initiated the search for a new Harvard Art Museums director; that proceeds, as does the search for a new Harvard general counsel. Drawing on a metaphor from one of his exercise routines, aqua jogging, the preternaturally fit Garber said, “The University cannot afford to tread water at a time like this.”

(These multiple searches point to two current Harvard challenges. First, any dean or senior officer, like the general counsel, will surely be devoted to her or his school or job, but would also want to know to what president he or she reports, so some uncertainty naturally attaches to an interim presidency of whatever duration. Second, as structured, Harvard’s office of the provost oversees a large number of affiliated and independent institutions like the Art Museums, diverse critical functions, and many people, including a large staff. Elevating the provost to interim president made obvious sense, given Garber’s knowledge of the place and players, but if his new role persists, he is going to need some significant help lest those other functions be set adrift.)

In a similarly action-oriented vein, Garber said, he will pursue work on revising Harvard’s admissions policies in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling last June outlawing the consideration of race in such decisions. The early steps—ensuring compliance with the law as restated—were effected rapidly. The larger discussion focuses on what students Harvard wants to attract, and how, and how to select them. “Those conversations are ongoing,” he said.

(Among the factors University leaders will have to bear in mind is heightened legislative interest in states such as Virginia, Connecticut, and Massachusetts in outlawing legacy preferences in admissions. The debate over whether to reinstate required standardized testing—SAT and ACT scores—for undergraduates is also heating up: Dartmouth made front-page news by reinstating a test requirement, but Harvard College has not yet addressed its current policy of waiving test scores.)

••••••

Amid these quotidian, albeit significant, tasks, Garber said, “It’s worth pointing out that we have a huge number of opportunities that existed before October 7 and that continue to exist, and we’re making progress on many of them.” He cited especially the interdisciplinary work of the Kempner Institute (natural and artificial intelligence) and the Salata Institute (sustainability and climate change), and the bumper crop of Rhodes Scholars, newly minted economics Nobel laureate Claudia Goldin, and a continuous succession of faculty academic awards.

“Fundamentally,” the interim president said, “we are an institution that strives for the highest levels of excellence in academic endeavors,” and continues to do so, aiming to be at the forefront of achievement across the broad array of intellectual fields. “The work of the University goes on,” Garber concluded. “My hope is to be able to help us advance even more rapidly in the core mission. I know our community has the same hope”—a source of optimism, he said, that those hopes can be realized. 
 

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