Harvard’s New Policy on the “Institutional Voice in the University” Gets It Right

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On Tuesday, a committee at Harvard released a report urging the university to stop issuing what it called “official statements about public matters that do not directly affect the university’s core function.” The school quickly announced that it would follow the committee’s recommendation and get out of the business of issuing statements about public matters unless they directly affect “the university’s core function.”

Harvard is not the first or only university to consider this possibility or reach this conclusion. The University Senate at Columbia University, members of the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, Yale University, and other places have already asked that their universities do what Harvard did this week.

Given Harvard’s visibility and prestige, its decision likely will encourage other colleges and universities to follow suit.

Harvard’s decision is a fitting end to an unbelievably turbulent academic year, a year that thrust higher education into a political maelstrom for which most colleges and universities were unprepared.

Over time, I have gone back and forth on the question of how institutions of higher education should react to political events in this country and around the world. But I now find myself persuaded that what Harvard is doing is a step in the right direction.

As a professor, I never knew quite what to think when the leaders of the place where I teach issue statements on behalf of the college. Most often I have agreed with the sentiments they conveyed.

I often worried about whether and how those statements changed the dynamic in my classes. Would students who disagreed with the college’s position feel inhibited from airing their views? What would my students think if I tried to explain why someone might reach a different conclusion from the one reached by the college?

And why are certain world events worthy of comment and others not? Would making statements on contested political issues mean that colleges and universities would get caught up in America’s increasingly tribal and vitriolic cultural wars?

Since the October 7 attack in Israel, these questions have come to the fore and taken on new urgency. Those of us in higher education have been used as foils, targets, and straw people by political forces that have long tried to bring universities to heel and to discredit what we do.

That is not a sufficient reason to change course. But all of us have paid a price, and the public has lost confidence in higher education and what it contributes to our society and our world.

Harvard’s new policy will not in itself change that.

Some argue that doing what the Harvard report recommended is a fool’s errand and a betrayal of the university’s reason for being. For example, Jonathan Grant turns to history and says that “the vast majority of universities were founded on the concept of social justice. This was often wrapped up in religious identities.” Grant notes that Harvard’s own “Rules and Precepts,” which were adopted in 1646, state that: “Every student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well, the maine end of his life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life (John 17:3) and therefore to lay Christ in the bottome, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning.”

He observes that the land grant universities in the United States were established for what he calls a political purpose, namely “to contribute to the rebuilding of the nation following the civil war.” Moreover, the history of universities is,” he says, “one of social action which more often than not has been on the right side of history.”

Grant does not convince me, in part because helping to rebuild a nation or fostering piety through study is very different from coming down on one side or another of an issue as explosive as what has happened in response to October 7.

Let’s look at the Harvard report and how it got to its conclusion about what it called the university’s “institutional voice.” The report is careful to eschew the language of institutional neutrality. It argues that “the university as an institution can never be neutral.” It takes issue not so much with the substance of calls for institutional neutrality as with the use of the term “neutral.”

Daniel Diermeier, writing in Forbes, uses that word to describe “the practice by universities and their leaders of not taking positions on political matters unconnected to the functioning of the university.” He notes that “The classic rationale for neutrality, put forth in the University of Chicago’s 1967 Kalven Report, is that when universities and their leaders take official positions, they chill debate and discussion by laying down a party line.” That concern also animates the Harvard report, though that document asserts that the university can never be neutral “because we believe in the value of seeking truth through open inquiry, debate, and weighing evidence, as opposed to mere assertion or unjustified belief.”

The report offers four reasons why Harvard (and by extension other places) should get out of the statement-making business on matters that “do not directly affect the university’s core function.”

First, it presents a competence argument. As it says, “The integrity and credibility of the institution are compromised when the university speaks officially on matters outside its institutional area of expertise.” University leaders, it contends, do not have expertise “in public affairs.”

Second, the Harvard report argues that universities are coming under pressure to take sides “on nearly every imaginable issue of the day.” Doing so, it argues, “will distract energy and attention from the university’s essential purpose.” Echoing the concerns of the Kalven report, the authors of Harvard’s report next suggest that when the university adopts an official position on a political issue “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 authors invite universities to address public issues instead through classes, scholarship, conferences, and other events.

Finally, the Harvard report warns that “official empathy statements run the risk of alienating some members of the community by expressing implicit solidarity with others.”

These arguments leave plenty of room for debates on campuses about the impact of university policies on the world beyond universities and what to do about those policies. And to be sure, the principles that the Harvard report articulates will not resolve every question about whether any particular issue implicates the “core function” of colleges and universities.

But they also may invite students, faculty, and staff to stand up for human rights and social justice in the work they do and their lives as citizens.

In the end, the Harvard report offers a solid foundation for turning the attention of people on college campuses to those issues, and also releasing colleges and universities from the need to develop and articulate their own foreign policy.

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