Harvard’s Year That Was

Amid academic honors, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences focuses on the campus protest and task forces on antisemitism, anti-Muslim bias, civil discourse, and institutional voice.

Harvard Yard closed

The gates of Harvard Yard remain shut as a campus protest encampment continues—a symbol of this challenging academic year, and a subject of Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ members concern. | PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN S. ROSENBERG/HARVARD MAGAZINE

On May 7, at the last regularly scheduled Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) meeting but one, Dean Hopi Hoekstra was able to celebrate the near end of her first academic year at the helm by conferring awards on colleagues for their distinguished service. (FAS will now meet in a special session May 14 to discuss a proposal to study a University faculty senate, and has an annual private meeting after exams to determine who has fulfilled graduation requirements.)

But this annual recognition of Harvard’s educational prowess was effectively overshadowed, like the year itself, by the University’s continuing challenges: with pro-Palestinian protestors still encamped in the Old Yard, the meeting was moved from University Hall to the Art Museums’ auditorium. The encampment became a major subject of discussion as interim provost John Manning discussed interim president Alan Garber’s May 6 announcement that the protestors would be subject to “involuntary leave” from their schools—a form of separation from the community. In light of the crises that shaped Hoekstra’s agenda and prompted formation of the University task forces on combating antisemitism and on combatting anti-Muslim and anti-Arab bias and the working groups on open inquiry and constructive dialogue (civil discourse, academic freedom and free speech) and on institutional voice (whether to adopt a position of official neutrality on public issues not directly related to higher education), much of the meeting was given over to reports by the leaders of those efforts to the FAS members attending.

Thus, the meeting in a way recapitulated a year dominated by issues that have come to extraordinary prominence within the community and the world beyond—seemingly at the expense of focusing on Harvard’s core work of teaching, learning, and scholarship. As a way of recording this fraught moment in University history, the proceedings are recorded in extra detail here.

From Routine Business to Current Crises

Dean Hoekstra introduced her newly appointed deans of arts and humanities, Sean Kelly, and of science, Jeff Lichtman, noting that her choices signaled in part her desire to make FAS’s academic divisions more porous, in support of greater intellectual collaboration. She warmly thanked the incoming deans’ predecessors, art historian Robin Kelsey and astronomer and physicist Christopher Stubbs (who remains her adviser on artificial intelligence), for their long service. Rakesh Khurana, dean of Harvard College, then delivered an extraordinary, effusive salute to Jack Megan, who is retiring after 23 years of service leading the Office for the Arts.

After conferring teaching and other awards (see “Prized Professors,” below), Hoekstra introduced Manning, who thanked FAS leaders for working with the central administration as Harvard has responded to issues such as the pro-Palestinian encampment set up in Harvard Yard on April 24. Garber’s community message of May 6 (full text and background information accessible here), he explained, was shaped by three overarching concerns.

First, “We all care deeply about our students”: their wellbeing, their right to exercise free speech and to express dissent—and their right to unimpeded pursuit of their education. That said, he continued, University policies govern the allowable time, place, and manner of protests, to balance those rights to speech and to pursuit of education at Harvard—the policies the encamped protestors are violating.

Second, Manning said, “We all want the occupation of Harvard Yard to end peacefully.” Accordingly, the University had chosen to respond to the violations by resorting to school disciplinary policies, not police action, which he called “a very last resort.” Students had been given repeated notice of their violations of University policies. Announcing that they could be subject to “involuntary leave” was part of that process. The sanction, he explained, is not academic suspension or expulsion; rather, it is based in school rules, and is used in cases such as ill-health or nonpayment of tuition or other bills, until such problem is resolved and a student can resume normal educational and academic activities. (Protestors on involuntary leave, Garber’s message noted, might be unable to take exams or to reside in Harvard housing, and “must cease to be present on campus until reinstated.”) The problem in this case, Manning said, was the risk to the educational environment posed by the protestors’ presence in violation of the time, place, and manner standards. Given the academic calendar, with families from around the world preparing to come to campus for graduation exercises, the risk of disruption seemed to loom top of mind for Manning, who said, “Commencement must go forward, and that requires the encampment to end.”

Finally, he said, “We are committed to dialogue and engagement,” even recognizing the passionate positions surrounding Israel and Gaza, but “dialogue and discussion do not and cannot” result from demands and encampments.

Manning’s remarks were met with silence.

A “400-Year-Old House” in Need of Maintenance—and a Violation of Trust

Hoekstra then said that she had hoped to talk about such matters as the faculty’s work on artificial intelligence, academic discourse, and other educational matters. Instead, circumstances and the packed meeting agenda forced her to address other themes. “This year, our institution and higher education as a whole have been challenged,” she said. Addressing the hard problems thus illuminated required the engagement of FAS faculty members. In a striking image, she described the faculty as owners of a (nearly) 400-year-old house “with good bones” (its tradition of academic freedom and excellence), but with “a lot of deferred maintenance” requiring much more than applications of duct tape.

Effecting the needed reforms and repairs, she said, would require all of the faculty’s talents, joined by commitment to Harvard’s academic mission and trust in one another. “The events of this year have not strengthened our trust in the institution,” she acknowledged. In her role as dean, Hoekstra continued, she aspired to model behavior that would earn her colleagues’ trust, engagement, and respect for their leadership.

In another striking moment, she continued, she wanted to trust FAS faculty members. She had lobbied hard to bring about the extraordinary April 30 town hall meeting of FAS members with Garber, Manning, and members of the Corporation, which was held in private. The subsequent breach of that confidence (a transcript was leaked by an attendee to the Crimson), she emphasized, “just confirms the fears of our students” about speaking frankly and pursuing their education in confidence.

After delivering that rebuke, the dean said that violation of her trust in colleagues had been “an anomaly” in a year during which those asked to serve had agreed, others had volunteered to help, and the faculty in general had engaged in discussions of hard issues. “We have a lot to tackle,” she said. “How we as a faculty respond really matters.” She urged colleagues to focus on FAS’s long-term challenges and opportunities, and to model qualities of leadership—for their students, and for one another. After nearly 20 years as a member of the faculty and nearly one year as dean, Hoekstra concluded, “I believe in this faculty” and its “shared academic vision.”

The Harvard Yard Encampment

The ensuing open discussion did not immediately reinforce the dean’s vision and focus on academic matters, as every question from the floor focused on the protest encampment and the administration’s May 6 warning to participants.

The first speaker asked whether students placed on involuntary leave could be considered trespassers, an initial step toward forceful removal by police action—a “disastrous decision” if taken. If faculty members interposed themselves between police and student protestors to stave off such action, would they be subject to discipline? Hoekstra said that faculty members are bound to abide by Harvard’s standards for professional conduct, enforcement of which was triggered by complaint; the policies, she noted, are available online.

The second question focused on the apparent lack of a conversation about the student protestors’ demands. The most prominent is for divestment of Harvard investments related to Israel’s military response in Gaza to Hamas’s terrorism. A majority of the faculty would support divestment, the speaker said; what would it take for Harvard to study the measure, as it had, in the past, considered divestment of holdings in apartheid South Africa, tobacco investments, and (most recently) fossil-fuel investments? Hoekstra noted that FAS has no role in University investment policy; Garber had addressed the matter at the town hall, she noted—ruefully referring those interested to the Crimson’s account.

Returning to the first question, a third speaker asked Hoekstra about the interpretation of the policies on faculty conduct, under the current circumstances: the protest encampment, and possible faculty action to protect protestors from removal by police, were that to occur. Hoekstra answered that possible violations of policies are investigated when complaints are received, and the actual circumstances of an incident shape the findings and outcome, so the broad question could not be answered in the abstract. She asked Nina Zipser, dean for faculty affairs and planning, to amplify. Zipser said the circumstances, were law enforcement personnel involved in such a case, would be critical to any determination, so the question is hypothetical—but that in general, faculty members are required to comply with FAS and Harvard policies, and the law.

A fourth speaker said that students have tried to engage the administration in conversation, and that they and faculty members have reached out but have had no response to their initiatives. Given that silence, students felt they had no alternative to the protest encampment as they sought to be heard. Manning said that Garber was not aware of any requests to have such dialogue—a response that was interrupted by laughter from the faculty members—and that so far as he was concerned, he was not focused on what had transpired during the fall semester (he became interim provost March 14), but rather was “looking forward.” In response to the laughter, he said the faculty did not have to like his answer, but those were the facts.

If anything, the final question underscored the distance between at least some part of the faculty and the new administration. If the interim president had been unaware of the student and faculty requests for dialogue about divesting assets related to Israel’s military activities in Gaza, it was surely no longer unaware—so why not pursue the opportunity for that conversation now? Rather than posing the potential for severe discipline, a finding that students were trespassers, and proceeding to their possible removal at the hands of the police, why not resort to dialogue now? That question was met with considerable applause and loud whoops of support. Hoekstra said that FAS does not need to weigh in on such University decisions, and the discussion ended.

[Updated May 9, 2024, 7:40 a.m. During editing this passage was inadvertently deleted: Later in the meeting, Hoekstra departed from the order of business to add a reflection about how she had responded to this last question. Her comment, the dean said, had been glib: when asked about administration matters, it was her responsibility as dean to convey FAS’s voice to the president, and she would do so. It was another illuminating moment in which she underscored the importance of fostering trust and candor within the faculty itself—especially during fraught times and exchanges.]  

Thereafter, the faculty proceeded to largely routine approval of the Extension School course offerings, changes in the student handbook for 2024-2025, and a revamping of the policies governing doctoral students’ dissertation advisory committees—a major step in implementing the recommendations of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences’ reform of advising and related educational practices. Then it was time to turn to urgent University business.

Antisemitism, Anti-Muslim and -Arab Bias, Campus Discourse, and Institutional Voice

Hoekstra invited the leaders of the University task forces and working groups organized this semester to address the broadest issues facing the community to brief FAS members on their progress and plans.

The Task Force on Combating Anti-Muslim and Anti-Arab Bias, and Task Force on Combating Antisemitism. Ali Asani, Albertson professor of Middle Eastern studies and professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic religion and cultures, co-chair of the task force on anti-Muslim and anti-Arab bias chartered by interim president Garber, said his group had held 75 listening sessions, engaging some 900 students, faculty, and staff so far. That process had had a “difficult beginning” because the task force had to earn the trust of students, who regarded the University administration (and by extension, the task force) as unconcerned about and unmoved by their experiences. Having made “a little bit of headway” in earning that trust, Asani said, the task force would spend the next couple of months analyzing what it heard in the listening sessions; collecting quantitative data via a survey; and addressing policy questions about free speech, protest, student life, and so on.

That work would be informed by the overall findings to date—what Asani called “a great deal of anxiety and fear of being targeted” on campus for the mere fact of being, or being perceived as, Arab, Muslim, or Palestinian. Mention of the word “Palestine” or “Palestinian” had become taboo, he said, and the affected members of the community felt their “identity erased” even as they feared being doxed or harassed. The antipathy had taken on a racial character, he said, as South Asian students and students of color were on the receiving end of such discriminatory behavior merely on the basis of appearing to others to be Palestinian or Arab. Many students reported being afraid to speak freely in this environment—as did junior faculty members who felt their chances of earning tenure could be put at risk if they expressed themselves openly. Understandably, he summarized, “The sense of community and belonging has suffered greatly,” amid widespread mistrust, fear, “and frankly, dehumanization.”

The overarching challenges, Asani said, were to redefine pluralism: “engaging with and understanding difference, and building bridges,” both within the curriculum and beyond, as intentional elements of a Harvard education. “A pedagogy of pluralism based on dialogue” would require training faculty members on case-study teaching methods, and educating the community on such matters as religious literacy.

The faculty responded to his remarks with applause.

Forst professor of Jewish history Derek Penslar, co-chair of the antisemitism task force, echoed the findings of Asani’s group. He described “problems of trust, or a lack of trust, between students and the administration and between students”—problems that he said had preceded the October 7 Hamas attack, and had been underscored by Garber’s May 6 announcement on the protest encampment. His task force’s listening sessions highlighted “deep-seated problems,” with “many Jewish affiliates profoundly unnerved” by “social exclusion and shunning.” Harvard’s Jewish community is not monolithic, he emphasized; taking diverse perspectives into account, the task force hoped to make short-term recommendations by the end of the month, while developing longer-term findings and recommendations about Jewish applicants, student life, protests, complaint processes, and discipline for the fall semester. Without elaborating, he said separate work would be required at Harvard Medical School, where unique and intense challenges had been reported.

Overall, Penslar reported a lack of healthy conversation about “controversial subjects” in an environment of pervasive fear and distrust.

In response, Thomas professor of government and sociology Theda Skocpol indicated an interest in and commitment to more constructive pedagogies. She suggested exercises that engaged participants—preferably in small groups—in addressing a common challenge. Given Harvard’s educational purposes, she outlined reading and discussion of a book or books that analyzed the complex, layered issues in the Middle East: an intellectual exercise on the matters at hand.

Hoekstra thanked colleagues Asani and Penslar for their work in helping FAS and Harvard “move forward together to heal our community.”

The Open Inquiry and Constructive Dialogue Working Group. The next presentations illuminated two working groups created by Garber and Manning. The co-chairs of the expansively named group on open inquiry and constructive dialogue, Radcliffe Institute Dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin (who is Paul professor of constitutional law and professor of history) and professor of government Eric Beerbohm (who is director of the Safra Center for Ethics and Hoekstra’s senior adviser on civil discourse), principally sought to invite ideas and discussion.

Open inquiry and productive exchanges of ideas “are for everyone,” Brown-Nagin said, not for the advocates of any one agenda or ideology. Beerbohm said that he was hopeful campus “hesitation and fear” could be countered with the proper tools when applied in the curriculum and other settings; he pointed to the semester-opening “Harvard Dialogues” on discourse and disagreement. The aim was to provide a set of principles that could guide deans and schools come this fall, along with workshops and other tools deployed via the Safra Center to show how they could be applied.

Diana Eck, Wertham professor of law and psychiatry in society emerita, who has studied religious pluralism for decades, volunteered a helpful pedagogical suggestion. After decades of lecturing, she said, she had found that case-method instruction of the sort mastered at Harvard Business School was in fact far more productive for addressing issues that “come out of our life in the University, the diversity we face.” She has compiled The Practice of Pluralismcase studies text; even last fall, she said, in a course whose students had obvious identities as Muslims, Palestinians, and Jews, focused case discussion “enabled them to talk with one another, and they were enormously respectful.” She concluded, “How we teach is enormously important.” Brown-Nagin, familiar with case teaching at the Law School, said the working group would indeed focus on teaching.

From a surprising perspective, Cabot professor of English literature Nicholas Watson said that in his scholarship, he had examined instruction centuries ago where students learned how to express themselves by debating subjects that were deliberately designed to involve low stakes. In other words, experimenting with dialogue and dialectical learning through “insincere” debates might be a safe, productive way to proceed. Brown-Nagin, obviously struck by the novel idea, said it sounded like a terrific one, and Beerbohm, sensing a chance to lighten up what has been a dark time, put himself down “in praise of whimsy” as a way of “trying on for size” the techniques and habits of fruitful discourse, before assuming the higher risks of engaging the hardest questions.

The Institutional Voice Working Group. Co-chairs Alison Simmons, Wolcott professor of philosophy, and Noah Feldman, Frankfurter professor of law, outlined the questions they are raising as they seek to create “a short, clear, principled statement on statements.” They aim for a guiding document, they said, not a fleshed-out protocol or policy.

As they proceed, Simmons said, the working group sought to understand “when, if at all, should the University as an institution issue statements on matters” of national or public interest, and why? Thus, what determines when or whether Harvard should take a position, or remain silent? A related query focuses on “who speaks for the University”: The president or provost? Deans? Sub-deans? House faculty deans? Department chairs? Faculties, like FAS? Finally, “How do we distinguish speaking for oneself…from speaking for or on behalf of the University”—and how can the distinction be made clear to outside audiences?

How the questions are answered, she said, has consequences for Harvard as an institution, for members of the community, and of course for the world outside. Making the task even more complicated, Feldman said, whatever the group’s statement must be both principled and pragmatic: workable in a world saturated in social media.

Either daunted or exhausted by this point, more than an hour and a half into the meeting, no FAS members chose to join the discussion.

Then the meeting turned to the final matter under discussion: the proposal that FAS join a University-wide effort to plan a faculty senate, certainly prompted by faculty members’ concerns about Harvard’s challenges and governance (discussed separately here).

Prized Professors

The awarding of prizes for teaching and advising, and for scholarly achievement, is in fact a crowning moment for FAS at the end of each academic year. Although Hoekstra did so with pleasure at the beginning of the faculty meeting, other issues obviously overwhelmed the day’s discussion. In the spirit of refocusing attention on teaching, learning, and scholarship, even as Harvard and the FAS address severe challenges, it seems fitting to end this report with the list of those the dean was able to honor for their work on behalf of the University’s academic mission, its students, and the spirit of research and discovery.

Roslyn Abramson Award for outstanding undergraduate teaching; winners are chosen on their ability to communicate with and inspire undergraduates, their accessibility to undergraduates, their sensitivity to undergraduates’ needs, and their devotion to teaching: Ruth Franklin, Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology (SCRB) and Harvard Medical School (HMS); Subhabrata Sen, Department of Statistics

Joseph R. Levenson Memorial Teaching Prize for excellence in undergraduate teaching, awarded by the Harvard Undergraduate Association: Antonia Maioni, visiting professor in the Department of Government and Weatherhead Center for International Affairs and non-resident tutor in Currier House

John R. Marquand Prize for exceptional advising and counseling of Harvard undergraduates, awarded by the Harvard Undergraduate Association: Muhammad Sarib Hussain, instructor in medicine, HMS, and resident tutor in Pforzheimer House

Everett Mendelsohn Excellence in Mentoring Award, established by the GSAS Graduate Student Council to honor faculty who go out of their way to offer support and guidance to graduate students’ research, education, professional and personal development, and career plans: David Atherton, Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations (EALC); Rosie Bsheer, Department of History; Kathryn Davidson, Department of Linguistics; Catherine Elgin, Graduate School of Education; Laura A. Hatfield, HMS; Maria K. Lehtinen, HMS; Catherine McKenna, Department of Celtic Languages and Literatures

Recently named Harvard College Professors, in recognition of their distinguished contributions to undergraduate teaching—in general education and within the concentrations, and in advising and mentoring students—as well as work in graduate education and research: Selim Berker, Department of Philosophy; Ya-Chieh Hsu, SCRB; Jie Li, EALC; Matthew Liebmann, Department of Anthropology; Yue Lu, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

Recently named Walter Channing Cabot Fellows, in honor of their outstanding contributions to their fields, including their notable publications: Ryūichi Abé, EALC; Emmanuel Akyeampong, Departments of History and of African and African American Studies; Christina Ciocca Eller, Department of Sociology and Committee on Degrees in Social Studies; John T. Hamilton, Departments of Comparative Literature and of Germanic Languages and Literatures; Ya-Wen Lei, Department of Sociology; Steven Levitsky, Department of Government; Jie Li, EALC; Peter Der Manuelian, Departments of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and of Anthropology; Derek Penslar, Department of History; Martin Puchner, Departments of English and of Comparative Literature; Tracy K. Smith, Departments of English and of African and African American Studies; Dustin Tingley, Department of Government; Naomi Weiss, Department of the Classics; Daniel Ziblatt, Department of Government

Members of the Faculty who were recently awarded an extra semester of paid sabbatical leave through the FAS Sabbatical Recognition Program, in recognition of their extraordinary contributions and remarkable dedication to their students, colleagues, and the University:

Science: David Charbonneau, Department of Astronomy; Elena Kramer, Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology; Venkatesh Murthy, Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology

Social Sciences: Melissa Dell, Department of Economics; Nick Harkness, Department of Anthropology; Leah Somerville, Department of Psychology

Arts and Humanities: Alison Frank Johnson, Departments of History and of Germanic Languages and Literatures; Yukio Lippit, Department of History of Art and Architecture; Deidre Lynch, Department of English

Dean of the FAS: Maya Jasanoff, Department of History

Read more articles by John S. Rosenberg

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