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Harvard to remain neutral on controversial public issues

The school established working groups on open inquiry. Credit: Getty

May 29, 2024 - 7:00am

Harvard University has announced that it is adopting a policy of institutional neutrality and will refrain from releasing statements on public policy issues.

The new policy comes after the faculty-led “Institutional Voice” working group produced a report about open inquiry on campus, indicating a desire from staff to move away from the activism the school has engaged in in recent years. The 7 October attacks brought these issues to the forefront, as donors and staff clashed over how the university ought to respond.

The policy, which prevents the university from issuing official statements on controversial issues, received support from the school’s top governing body and its new interim president, Alan Garber. Staff including administrators, governing board members, deans, department chairs, and faculty councils will be urged to avoid making public statements on behalf of the university on issues wherein reasonable people might disagree.

The Ivy League university landed in the national spotlight when, shortly after 7 October, dozens of student groups joined a letter claiming Israel was “entirely responsible” for the attacks due to their treatment of Palestinians. The school was soon embroiled in student protests, and its then-president Claudine Gay infamously told Congress that calls for genocide of Jews did not necessarily violate Harvard’s rules against bullying and harassment.

Following donor backlash over her testimony, along with a string of plagiarism accusations, Gay was pushed out of her job, and the university has since been taking steps to exit the spotlight and resolve its internal conflicts.

The testimony was particularly explosive in light of Harvard’s recent history of taking official stances on social justice issues. The released an official statement in response to the death of George Floyd in 2020 and, a month later, called the school’s own police officers into scrutiny for being present at a protest as part of their mutual aid agreement with the cities of Boston and Cambridge, mentioning “allegations of racism within the department and use of excessive force”. Harvard also made a pledge to divest from fossil fuels.

In addition to institutional neutrality, the school has established working groups on open inquiry, antisemitism, and anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bias, with the latter two expected to release recommendations this autumn.

Harvard ranked worst in the nation in the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression’s free speech rankings in 2024, earning the lowest possible score. The university saw nine attempts to deplatform speakers, seven of which resulted in some form of sanctions against the speaker.

The new policy resembles the University of Chicago’s commitment to institutional neutrality, which it adopted amid protests in the 1960s. The Chicago Statement recognised the protection of free speech as a key role of universities, and found that, in order to promote free and open inquiry, universities needed to remain neutral on controversial issues.

“The purpose of the university is to pursue truth. In that pursuit, the university as an institution can never be neutral, because we believe in the value of seeking truth through open inquiry, debate, and weighing the evidence, as opposed to mere assertion or unjustified belief”, the Institutional Voice report read. “The university and its leaders should not, however, issue official statements about public matters that do not directly affect the university’s core function.”


is UnHerd’s US correspondent.

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Penny Rose
Penny Rose
26 days ago

Good. The backlash amongst donors must have been severe. And they obviously aren’t going to put (fashion driven) principle before money.

J Bryant
J Bryant
26 days ago

the school has established working groups on open inquiry, antisemitism, and anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bias
Erm, any word about a working group regarding anti-white bias? Oops, sorry, anti-white bias hasn’t cost Harvard any donor money.

Ian_S
Ian_S
26 days ago

Lipstick on a pig. No mention of challenging the totalitarian DEI regime, and it won’t stop the endless attempts to script social justice revolution from the “grievance studies” departments.

Studio Largo
Studio Largo
26 days ago
Reply to  Ian_S

Exactly. They’re just taking their noxious crap underground. Cucarachas.

Martin Johnson
Martin Johnson
25 days ago
Reply to  Ian_S

“Motte and Bailey” strategy.

Emre S
Emre S
26 days ago

Who would’ve thought last year that it would take the actions of a small group of Palestinians half-way across the world to kick off the series events to start bringing sanity back to the ivory tower of the Atlantic.

ChilblainEdwardOlmos
ChilblainEdwardOlmos
25 days ago
Reply to  Emre S

“actions” – a gift for understatement… “sanity” – a way with hyperbole…

M. Jamieson
M. Jamieson
26 days ago

 The Chicago Statement recognised the protection of free speech as a key role of universities, and found that, in order to promote free and open inquiry, universities needed to remain neutral on controversial issues.



No shit Sherlock.

A D Kent
A D Kent
25 days ago

This piece seems to be labouring under the misapprehension that Harvard is a place for learning and research, rather than what it actually is nowadays – which is to say a hedge-fund with a historically branded side-line in dispensing prestigious certificates to those wealthy enough to attend and similar marketing kudos to the products of the corporations who fund their bloated departments.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
25 days ago

Trouble with these walk-backs is that with generations of people now trained in this kind of garbage, huge numbers of whom work in the education sector, if they don’t implement something systemic to check sanity, they’ll be forced into embarrassing volte-faces every two weeks.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
25 days ago

The evolution of the American university has been fascinating to watch. My alma mater, for instance, a land grant institution (meaning its early areas of specialty were agriculture and engineering) used to be a bona fide institution of higher learning. It has since grown into a massive corporation that dabbles in education while also lending its name to a thriving athletic enterprise known as college sports.
Harvard, meanwhile, has devolved from being among the cradle of future presidents, judges, and corporate titans to an ideological hot house that breeds brown shirts who are more likely than not to be a pox on every workplace they infect. How typically cowardly for the chronological adults in the room to choose neutrality, as if that will change what the campus has already put into motion.
Had the leadership told the students years ago that they do not run the place and that transferring is a viable option if ideas scare them, this cancer might not have metastasized. Imagine your president telling Congress that talk of genocide, against anyone, must be viewed in “context,” and then imagine that’s not even the worst of her offenses. Imagine your students talking of a river and sea while unable to name either. Imagine devaluing a once-proud brand to Bud Light status.

El Uro
El Uro
25 days ago

Focusing on antisemitism is a huge mistake, like to treat syphilis with rubbing

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
25 days ago
Reply to  El Uro

Yes, you’ve hit the nail on the head. The problem with the West these days is that we need a plethora of task forces and agencies to regulate human speech and behavior. When we focus on anti-semitism, anti-LGBQT, or whatever other kind of anti we inevitably end up finding more of it. I would much prefer that situations involving possible anti-semitism are dealt with on a case-by-case approach rather than through wholesale enforcement of speech and legal codes. What Harvard is doing is similar to what witch-hunters of the 17th century were doing when they were hired to find witches. They couldn’t find enough of them. In fact, Harvard itself was responsible for the many of the witch burnings in Salem during the 1600s. Plus ça change.