Talking about Talking

Fostering healthy disagreement

Illustration of people talking to each other with colorful thought bubbles above their heads

Illustration by Ellagrin/istock

As the spring semester began, Harvard faced the difficult challenge of clarifying its free speech policies and securing community adherence to them. After a tumultuous autumn with sharp campus divisions over Hamas’s terrorism and the resulting Israel-Palestine war, the issues were drawn even more starkly for the University on December 5, when then-President Claudine Gay’s congressional testimony on how the school valued free speech was widely interpreted as insensitive to harassment, antisemitism, or other violations of campus speech norms. As the issue intensified, and following Gay’s January 2 resignation, schools and groups around Harvard sought to foster understanding of productive speech and Harvard’s standards—in effect, conversations about conversation.

Some of this work began long before the present campus unrest. In November, the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) released a report, “Candid and Constructive Conversations,” resulting from a year of work led by its faculty. The initiative assessed how HKS could better establish an environment where students feel comfortable and confident disagreeing with each other. At its core is the belief that productive disagreement is a teachable skill. “Some people will come to it more naturally than others,” said Dean Douglas Elmendorf, but “we can all get better at it through practice.”

One of the most striking findings from the underlying research was that people will generally express their true opinions in a small group, but as the room gets bigger, they further restrict their speech. Although more than 85 percent of students reported being at least “somewhat” comfortable sharing their stance on controversial topics in a one-on-one peer conversation, only around one-third of them would speak freely at a public HKS event.

Having identified that students, faculty, and staff feel uncomfortable speaking about controversial topics, the working group then sought to determine why. Half of surveyed students cited “reputational or relational harm among peers” as a key reason for feeling hesitant about speaking freely, and 57 percent worried that “a person in a position of power might criticize their views as offensive.” Across the board, nearly three-quarters of students believed that the school is not an environment conducive to expressing opinions on controversial issues.

Given that perception, the working group and school leaders considered it critically important to teach students how to disagree. When graduates enter public service, said Erica Chenoweth, Stanton professor of the First Amendment, who chaired the working group, “They’re serving people who are different from them and in some cases may say things to them or about them that they don’t resonate with.” To prepare them for their future roles, Chenoweth continued, students must learn to encounter other ideas “with curiosity and…feel the same urgency to listen as they often do to be heard.”

The report suggested some tangible steps to make the school more welcoming to disagreement. Candid conversations should be stressed as a core competency in public materials, admissions application questions, and orientation programming. Starting this semester, HKS will conduct training, workshops, and small group discussions within its departments about fostering disagreement.

Modeling these findings, HKS’s Tarek Masoud, Ford Foundation professor of democracy and governance, has focused on showcasing civil disagreement since the Middle East war began. In the weeks following Hamas’s attack on Israel, he convened a series of panels on the history and future of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The environment there differed from the popular perception of Harvard last fall: Masoud said that students listened, asked difficult questions, and—notably—did not shout down speakers. In several public conversations, Israeli, Palestinian, and American experts argued with each other respectfully but enthusiastically. After one mid-November event (“Israel and Gaza: How did we get here? Where are we heading?”), Masoud said that every Palestinian and Israeli attendee who approached him appreciated the event “because they felt the arguments had actually been had.” Students, he continued, “were thirsting for people to have the argument, not a faux polite conversation.”

Masoud believes that stimulating respectful disagreement need not require a task force. “This is not as hard as we make it out to be,” he said. “I really think the way to have difficult conversations is just to have difficult conversations, and not to get overly agitated when a difficult conversation in fact proves to be difficult.”

 

In early December, Dean Hopi Hoekstra underscored the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ (FAS) interest in fostering vigorous dialogue by appointing Eric Beerbohm, director of the Safra Center for Ethics and faculty dean of Quincy House, as senior adviser on civil discourse. At a faculty meeting, she told colleagues that Beerbohm 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.”

Related efforts were on display when students returned to campus in January. The University launched a weeklong set of “Harvard Dialogues” events across campus focused on civil discourse. In the first event, hosted with FAS, nearly 100 students participated in a two-day “Free Expression Student Summit” run by literary and human rights nonprofit PEN America. In a keynote panel opening the event, PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel ’91, J.D. ’96, Klein professor of law Randall Kennedy, and former dean of the college at the University of Chicago John Boyer discussed how to create a campus that values debate and disagreement.

Nossel traced the recent struggles over collegiate free speech back to America’s rapidly diversifying campuses. When she was an undergraduate, she said, she thought “the University needed to address a student population that was different from the one that Harvard was founded for centuries ago.” American high schools, she said in an interview, “remain significantly segregated in this country,” leaving students ill-equipped to interact with people of different backgrounds and ideologies. Universities, she continued, are not properly “inculcating into students the idea that you’re coming into an environment where there’s going to be…discourse.”

Though the panelists acknowledged the many factors that restrict campus speech, they also felt that University affiliates often overreact. When Kennedy’s colleagues complain that they must “walk on eggshells” with their language, he said that he sometimes replies, “What do you think, that somebody is going to throw you in the Gulag?” He later added, “Where else in American life…is there more openness than in the university?” Nossel had a slightly different perspective, acknowledging that offensive speech can affect students “psychologically, academically, and even physically.” But, she added, those harms “can be exaggerated…and over-emphasized,” continuing, “This language and currency of harm has become chilling and silencing.” Such concerns aside, the perception of a poor speech environment is often enough to restrict campus conversation. “Free speech has to be fearless speech,” said Boyer.

During the second day of the summit, Harvard’s leaders reminded the University community that speech rights are accompanied by responsibilities toward others. On January 19, Alan M. Garber, interim president, and the deans disseminated a University-wide message clarifying Harvard’s policy regarding “the guarantees and limitations” in campus protest and dissent. The underlying policy, adopted after the convulsive Vietnam War protests that brought the University to a standstill in 1969, forbids protest and dissent that amount to “intense personal harassment” or “grave disrespect for the dignity of others,” or that interfere with the “normal duties and activities” of other University members. These constitute “an unacceptable violation.” The email specifically called out the unauthorized occupation of University buildings and protests in classrooms, libraries, dormitories, dining halls, and offices—“unless a particular school makes an explicit exception.” The policy’s intent, Garber and the deans concluded, is to “reaffirm the essential function of our University, fostering an environment where community members learn from a vibrant exchange of ideas.”

For a path forward, Nossel suggested that Harvard “institutionalize and universalize the place of free speech on campus.” Noting Harvard’s current speech controversies, Nossel said in an interview that “the University has to have the back of people who test boundaries and say things that are controversial.” She proposed that matriculating freshmen attend orientation workshops about free speech and that underclassmen take a mandatory course on debating difficult ideas. Removing cell phones from classrooms, she added, would help reinforce the understanding that in-class conversations are distinct from those in the public arena.

Through these and other efforts, Harvard is attempting to model civil disagreement among its students, faculty, and staff. The proof of their efficacy will be determined this spring, when community conversations about the Middle East—productive or not—resume, and in months and years to come, when similarly fraught issues arise.

Read more articles by: Max J. Krupnick

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