The Policy Harvard Should Have Had All Along

All sorts of events tempt a university to make a public statement of support or condemnation: a terrorist attack on New York City and Washington, D.C. A mass shooting at a nearby elementary school. Faculty and student enthusiasm for protest movements such as Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. A social reckoning like #MeToo. Thugs storming the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. In the moment, the benefits of making a statement feel as though they outweigh the costs.

But the costs are real and cumulative, as Harvard has learned in the seven months since Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel. Alumni and students on both sides of the Gaza conflict have called on the school to condemn the atrocities of their enemies, or sympathize with their pain, or affirm their political positions, values, sentiments, or sense of morality. It could not please everyone, and its president, Claudine Gay, had to step down under pressure.

In a report released on Tuesday, Harvard has come to the wise conclusion that the institution should stop issuing “official statements about public matters that do not directly affect the university’s core function.”

It will be interesting to see whether Harvard’s leaders can heed that advice and resist making statements through Election Day. Until then, other institutions would be wise to follow Harvard’s example and adopt their own policy of institutional neutrality. Universities have never possessed moral clarity. Knowledge creation requires rewarding dissent and epistemic modesty, qualities that are incompatible with institutional solidarity or real-time judgments about who is on “the right side of history.”

Institutional neutrality is most closely associated with the University of Chicago, where the Kalven report was adopted in 1967. It notes that “the instrument of dissent and criticism is the individual faculty member or the individual student,” not the head administrator or any entity that purports to express any collective view. “The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic,” the report states.

Harvard’s new report follows a similar rationale. It says, “The integrity and credibility of the institution are compromised when the university speaks officially on matters outside its institutional area of expertise.” Its leaders, after all, are hired for “skill in leading an institution,” not “expertise in public affairs.” And when university leaders habitually release statements, they face pressure from competing sides of nearly every issue, distracting “from the university’s essential purpose.”

It also notes that choosing a side “can undermine the inclusivity of the university community. It may make it more difficult for some members of the community to express their views when they differ from the university’s official position.” The report advises against even statements of empathy pertaining to wars, natural disasters, and persecution, because “the university runs the risk of appearing to care more about some places and events than others” and “runs the risk of alienating some members of the community by expressing implicit solidarity with others.” And “anodyne official statements may cause further distress to the very groups they are meant to comfort.”

The report closes by advising that when pressure builds to make an official statement, Harvard should refer to its new policy and clarify the reason for its silence: “the belief that the purpose of the university is best served by speaking only on matters directly relevant to its function and not by issuing declarations on other matters, however important.”

As university leaders pronounce less, faculty and students should feel more free to step up and speak up, not on behalf of any collective, but as individuals who prefer constructive discourse to groupthink. For those who crave pronouncements from the top, there is still religion.

The Atlantic