A Harvard Agenda Shaped by Speech

The work underway in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences

University Hall

At John Harvard’s back: University Hall, where the Faculty of Arts and Sciences convenes for faculty meetings | Photograph by niko yaitanes/harvard magazine

Ordinarily, a new Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) dean might be expected to devote herself to learning about colleagues’ work, en route to formulating an agenda for investment in new academic priorities and planning how to secure the financial resources to effect them. When Hopi Hoekstra was appointed to the position last June, her academic experience, as a multidisciplinary biologist, and her interest in pedagogy, seemed to suggest the possibility of renewed FAS focus on the life sciences (an area of strength across the University) after a period of protracted investment in engineering, quantum computing, data science, artificial intelligence, and related engineering fields. She declared her interest in working with colleagues “not only to create new knowledge but to do what we can to contribute to a better world.”

No doubt those interests remain. But it is a measure of just how far the events since last October 7 have moved the University that FAS’s current agenda is dominated by concerns about how the faculty (and by implication, Harvard) attend to the fundamentals: encouraging and protecting productive discourse and free speech in support of academic inquiry.

Free Speech, Classroom Conduct, Faculty Governance

During the March 5 FAS faculty meeting, Hoekstra used her time on the agenda to host a speed round of guest speakers addressing the following topics:

University priorities: speech and academic discourse. Law School dean John Manning, appointed interim provost four days earlier by Alan Garber, interim president, outlined two Harvard-wide priorities he would lead. The first concerns a policy on whether Harvard should remain on the sidelines when public controversies arise beyond the immediate purview of higher education—so-called institutional neutrality, a possible tool in encouraging faculty and student debate about issues free from official stances taken by their schools’ leaders. Manning said the relevance of such a principle to Harvard would be considered in an open, collaborative way, guided by concerns that official University statements not “deter or stifle” debate.

The second broad focus, he continued, embraces academic freedom, civil discourse, and open inquiry. As examples of such work underway, Manning pointed to the College’s Intellectual Vitality Initiative and professor of government Eric Beerbohm’s work within FAS on civil discourse, previously announced by Hoekstra (see more below).

Both efforts, Manning emphasized, would be careful to respect Harvard schools’ autonomy, as they and the University as a whole seek to protect academic freedom and speech in a deeply polarized world.

The senior adviser on civil discourse. Next up, Beerbohm, as senior adviser to the dean (he is also director of the Safra Center for Ethics and faculty dean of Quincy House), rattled off a nearly breathtaking list of activities: the semester-opening “Harvard Dialogues” on discourse and disagreement; a March 31 public discussion of academic freedom and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives (to be followed by small-group conversations within the Houses); a panel later in the spring on antisemitism and Islamophobia; and an array of “modules on dialogue across difference,” with plans to introduce instruction within General Education and Expository Writing courses, further House discussions, student debates, and Safra Center research on the under-studied realms of civil discourse and dialogue across differences.

Focusing on the classroom. In December, Hoekstra said that dean for faculty affairs and planning Nina Zipser would coordinate efforts to train professors and teaching fellows about how to deal with classroom disruptions, should any arise. In February, Dean Hoekstra appointed Coolidge professor of history Maya Jasanoff and Goldman professor of economics David Laibson (also faculty dean of Lowell House) as co-chairs of a new Classroom Social Compact Committee (CSCC).

Looking beyond the threat of disruption, the new group was charged by the dean with finding ways to encourage use of “the skills and framework of civil discourse in the classroom” in order to “increase the likelihood that a broad range of perspectives will be heard and that participants will open themselves to new ideas.” Another desideratum, she continued, is ensuring that “everyone in the classroom—students and instructors alike—has a shared understanding of how they together contribute to an environment that promotes discovery, learning, and meaningful dialogue.” The “ultimate goal” is articulating in “simple, clear terms our community’s shared goals for the FAS classroom and the roles of students, both undergraduate and graduate, and their instructors in fostering them. In addition to developing these statements, the CSCC will provide recommendations for strengthening and nurturing a vibrant classroom.”

The challenge, of course, is to make those (presumably universally held) ideals realities, both in the current, overheated environment, and as a matter of course in the years ahead.

Reporting briefly in her new capacity on March 5, Jasanoff assured faculty colleagues that the committee would begin to reach out to the faculty broadly, and that its work on behalf of strengthening and nurturing vibrant classrooms was “strongly aligned with protection of academic freedom.” That means faculty members secure in conducting pedagogy, and students comfortable challenging ideas and being challenged about their own. Stay tuned.

Faculty governance. Finally, in a related matter, Hoekstra introduced Parimal G. Patil, professor of religion and Indian philosophy, who chairs a committee examining how FAS might use its faculty meetings to improve its governance. It has not gone unnoticed in recent years that many FAS meetings largely convene to hear reports, or to vote in a pro forma way—for example, to adopt the course of study annually. Attendance often falls to as few as one-fifth of voting members, and the quorum was reduced in 2008 (initially in a meeting that itself lacked a quorum), reflecting that reality. (The body does legislate: the March 5 meeting changed the rules for undergraduates to switch from letter-graded to pass-fail assessment for courses, but rejected a proposal to alter the timing of and procedures for switching course enrollments once the semester is well underway.)

Given the issues facing the faculty and the University, that attenuation of governance is not trivial. The decision announced by former President Lawrence S. Bacow to discontinue the practice of having the University’s leader chair FAS faculty meetings symbolized their declining salience. Although there was a particular reason for making the announcement in the spring of 2023 (because president-elect Claudine Gay was the first Harvard leader to rise from FAS dean, so having her look over her successor’s shoulder would be awkward), it signaled a general sense that the meetings no longer commanded the president’s time or attention in any concerted way.

Hoekstra’s taking the issue on is therefore important, at a time when University governance is probably being rethought, too. The committee has its work cut out for it. Joining Patil in the task are Lawrence professor of engineering Robert D. Howe, Porter professor of art, film, and visual studies David Joselit, Bussey professor of organismic and evolutionary biology Elena Kramer, and Hazel associate professor of the social sciences Hannah Marcus. Patil was a member of the Faculty Council, the faculty’s elected executive group, and Joselit and Marcus are current members, so they are an attuned, expert cohort. Their work bears watching.

Other business. Hoekstra touched on other matters, intellectual and institutional. Her senior adviser on generative artificial intelligence, Christopher W. Stubbs (who is Moncher professor of physics and astronomy and FAS’s dean of science), briefly discussed some pedagogical findings from his new General Education course on AI (look for a report on the course in the May-June Harvard Magazine). And the University’s managing director for labor and employee relations, reported on the unionization efforts by nontenured faculty, postdoctoral fellows, and related employees—about 3,300 in all, concentrated in FAS, the Law School, and the Medical School—and the likely unionization vote in early April.

Harvard’s Institutional Priorities

But following those presentations, Hoekstra concluded her section of the meeting by returning to the institutional matters at hand. Following a recent Faculty Council meeting with members of the Corporation—an unusual development reflecting Harvard’s unusual circumstances—she announced a forthcoming FAS town hall with Alan Garber and Corporation members: another extraordinary measure reflecting current concerns. And then she thanked colleagues for “stepping forward with guidance on the path forward for FAS,” including their efforts to provide her the data with which she—a scientist, after all—would reach decisions.

Those decisions, clearly, won’t focus on FAS’s substantive intellectual and research agenda for the future. Rather, they are, for now, squarely centered on the fundamentals of making FAS, and the larger University, an effective community of teachers, learners, and scholars, at a time when questions about how well those fundamental roles are being performed have become pervasive.

Read more articles by John S. Rosenberg

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