Raising Voices

Saying things unsaid since October 7

During the University’s traumatic fall semester, several harshly critical voices attracted outsized attention. Hedge fund financier Bill Ackman ’88, M.B.A. ’92, took to X to bash pro-Hamas students; assail then-President Claudine Gay; and declare diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives a malign ideology incompatible with free speech and academic merit. U.S. Representative Elise Stefanik ’06 went after Gay before, during, and after a December 5 hearing, characterizing Harvard as a woke cesspool of antisemitism. Anti-diversity activist Christopher Rufo crowed in the Wall Street Journal about his tactics for defenestrating academic leaders. And there were others.

In the short term, there is very little the institution could or should have done about these incoming rounds. But over time, remaining silent cedes the argument—in this case to a side uninterested in constructive criticisms. Amid the bombardment, countervailing views (including those of a reformist bent), which might have shed light on the issues, went unexpressed.

Those voices are the ones that must refresh the case for research universities’ values, mission, and means of action. No matter how long the current upheaval lasts, and especially if it intensifies, having a Harvard that rediscovers its voice matters—for itself, higher education, and all who benefit from educated citizens and the faculties’ research. So, this is a must-do item for the Corporation: for its own communications, and for the qualifications it seeks in a future president.

 

As it happens, exemplary models of how to fulfill this role are readily at hand, at an institutional level and in the form of a scrupulous scholar’s work.

Photograph of Christopher L. Eisgruber
Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber| Photograph courtesy of Princeton University

Christopher L. Eisgruber, Princeton’s president since 2013, has taken to delivering an annual “State of the University” letter. The edition released January 18, just 16 days after Gay’s departure, doesn’t shy from trouble: it is headlined “Excellence, Inclusivity, and Free Speech,” all of which have become contested ground here. Just having such a report to the community from its leader about its challenges, opportunities, and achievements seems worthwhile. All the more so when the author is forthright and fearless.

Consider the way Eisgruber addresses diversity, inclusion, and excellence initiatives—favorite targets of universities’ sharpest critics today. He takes note of “attacks upon the efforts that we and others make to ensure that colleges and universities are places where students, faculty, researchers, and staff from all backgrounds can thrive.” Some of these arguments, he observes, are “nakedly partisan jeremiads, but others come from centrist voices.” All, he briskly continues, “are wrong. America’s leading universities are more dedicated to scholarly excellence today than at any previous point in their history, and our commitment to inclusivity is essential to that excellence.”

 

Crucially, Eisgruber exhumes his institution’s past to make the point that “only dewy-eyed nostalgia, baleful ignorance, or an ideologically driven determination to erase history could justify a claim that leading American universities were more focused on excellence in the past than they are today. Exactly the opposite is true.” A century ago, he notes, “Old Nassau had a reputation as ‘the finest country club in America.’” In 1958, Princeton’s Alumni Council reassured graduates that increased admission of public school applicants would in no way compromise admission of their offspring, “proudly boast[ing] that the sons of Princetonians were overrepresented in the bottom quartile of the class and among those who flunked out.” Today, with racial, religious, and gender- and need-based barriers to admission dismantled, “Princeton’s academic excellence has increased substantially across every segment of its undergraduate population.” And, Eisgruber notes, “Standards have also risen on the faculty.”

Those who “disparage the excellence of America’s leading universities,” he writes, “aim to stoke animosity toward diversity, equity, and inclusion programs. More specifically, they insist that there is a choice to be made between resolutely seeking excellence and aggressively promoting inclusivity.” Princeton’s evidence shows “That is wrong.”

Mustering similar data, the same could be said of Harvard and its other peers. Especially in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling prohibiting affirmative action in admissions, and now the fierce attacks on Harvard, Penn, and other schools, those arguments ought to be made by proponents of inclusive excellence in the academy. In a recent essay, Steven Brint, Ph.D. ’82, professor of sociology and public policy at the University of California, Riverside, suggested that academic leaders thrown into the current political arena need skills other than scholarly and administrative credentials. He focused on “the capacity to provide the public with straight talk and with concrete examples illustrating why their institutions make a difference and are worthy of public support.”

Princeton’s president shouldn’t have to raise the flag alone.

 

Eisgruber is equally potent on free speech (“Censorship has a lousy track record”), but it’s worth mining a source nearer at hand for enlightenment on that equally contested subject. Critics of Harvard’s commitment to speech have recently wielded a particular cudgel: the FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression) survey of “student free speech and open inquiry.” It purports to show that Harvard ranks 248th (dead last), with an overall score of zero and an “abysmal” speech climate: in the gutter with Penn, Georgetown, Northwestern, Dartmouth, and others.

Anecdotally, Dartmouth’s ranking ought to raise eyebrows: that institution has been widely praised for fostering substantive, informative campus discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ever since the Hamas terrorism of October 7.

More rigorously, Ryan Enos, professor of government, has dissected the FIRE methodology, reporting in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the survey’s many deficiencies. Beyond the obvious limitations of its student polling (based on small, opt-in samples), he noted, “FIRE put a thumb on the scale” by arbitrarily weighting media reports of campuses’ supposed support for or sanctioning of speakers’, students’, and scholars’ speech—resulting in a ranking that “shouldn’t be treated as anything real.” In fact, the methodology appears to stigmatize large institutions which have more speakers (an effect that is amplified at institutions with law and public policy schools that provide more forums for such speakers).

“Arguably,” Enos concluded, “the most robust and successful defenses of speech…do not make it into the FIRE database at all.” The whole exercise may be upside down: “In certain respects, FIRE is penalizing colleges not because they have particularly hostile climates for speech, but because these colleges are places where free speech on controversial issues is most likely to occur.”

Enos didn’t argue that Harvard is perfect; but he is compelling on the uselessness, and even perversity, of a ranking system that has been widely cited as especially damning of the University. His analysis is an example of research worth introducing to public discourse (and, of course, subjecting to robust critique of the sort Enos very honorably advances).

To be clear, criticisms of universities are not null and void: the institutions have plenty of faults; correcting them is essential. But amid the current sound and fury, institutional silence is assuredly not golden. In face of that “ideologically driven determination” to raze the academy rather than effect reforms, it is essential to give voice to meaningful arguments and scholarship bearing on what universities are and should be. That is an urgent task for governing boards to enable, through their chosen leaders. 

—John S. Rosenberg, Editor
 

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