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Harvard’s pivot to neutrality is purely cosmetic

Institutional neutrality is a public relations fix. Credit: Getty

May 30, 2024 - 8:30pm

After a year of public firings, embarrassing Congressional hearings and plagiarism scandals, Harvard University is more than ready to get back in the public’s good graces.

The university announced on Tuesday that it will stop making public statements on controversial political issues. Other universities will likely follow Harvard’s lead. Northwestern and Stanford, in fact, said they would limit political statements shortly after Hamas’s attacks in Israel in October.

To some, this might seem like a return to sanity on Harvard’s part: their past political statements tend to only pour gas on the flames of Left-wing campus radicals. But unfortunately, Harvard’s new so-called institutional neutrality is yet another cowardly choice to avoid enacting the difficult reforms needed to restore a healthy academic environment. Without removing radical administrators and fixing their biased hiring practices, Harvard’s commitment is just empty words.

Institutional neutrality is the idea that universities should avoid commenting on social or political issues. The concept was formalised at the University of Chicago in the Kalven Report during the 1960s, when universities were navigating a particularly heated political environment. The creators of the Kalven Report believed university leadership should remain neutral on controversial topics to preserve a culture of free expression for students and faculty.

The Kalven ideals failed to catch on, at least at a large scale. In recent years, universities provide their opinions on almost every social and political issue of the day. They readily commented on George Floyd’s death in 2020. They also issued statements on the Russia-Ukraine war.

Yet after the 7 October attacks in Israel, many universities fell oddly silent. Harvard was among them, and the university’s unusually slow response to the attacks drew significant public criticism. Prominent long-time donors pulled their funds from the university, and then-president Claudine Gay’s testimony to Congress on campus antisemitism ultimately resulted in her resignation.

In response, Harvard leaders decided that the root of the problem was their policy on public statements. Shortly after Gay’s resignation, interim president Alan Garber created the faculty-led Institutional Voice Working Group to devise a new university strategy on public statements. The working group decided that it’s best for Harvard to avoid comment on politically charged issues.

But even this decision was speckled with caveats. Harvard Law professor and co-chair of the Institutional Voice Working Group Noah Feldman described carve-outs that allow the university to comment on political issues. Harvard, for instance, could advocate against former president Donald Trump’s plan to tax university endowments or the Supreme Court’s decision to end race-based admissions. “The University is not value neutral,” according to Feldman.

All of this discussion about public statements therefore misses the point. The reason universities struggled to make statements after 7 October was because of outspoken radicals in the administration, faculty, and student body. These radicals use the language of social justice and critical theory to justify acts of terror and repression of the free exchange of ideas. This quickly became apparent as encampments sprung up on campuses around the country. Student protestors violated university policies, vandalised buildings and statues, and hurled antisemitic insults at Jewish students.

Universities would love to blame this behaviour on students. But faculty and administrators tolerated — even supported – such actions. This is the academic environment that Harvard and others have chosen to create, and it is the environment that the public rejects.

It will take much more than a lack of public statements to change this environment. Administrators who tolerate student misbehaviour because they sympathise with the cause must be removed. Faculty hiring practices should also be revisited to reward merit over diversity and social justice.

Unfortunately, many Harvard faculty don’t seem ready to acknowledge the need for these reforms. In a recent survey of Harvard Arts and Sciences faculty, more than half of participants believed self-censorship and intolerance among students were the greatest threats to academic freedom. Yet only a little over a third considered DEI programming a threat. Harvard faculty haven’t yet realised that DEI, through hiring practices and training, leads to an environment of political bias and self-censorship. Worse, it empowers radicals on campus who do not believe in the free exchange of ideas.

Universities like Harvard must be willing to uproot the practices that have created an unfriendly environment to non-progressive views. Otherwise, their commitment to institutional neutrality remains a public relations fix and nothing more.


Neetu Arnold is a Research Fellow at the National Association of Scholars and a Young Voices contributor. 

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J Bryant
J Bryant
21 days ago

It’s strange what catches your eye in an article. The opening sentence of the current article is what attracted my attention:
After a year of public firings, embarrassing Congressional hearings and plagiarism scandals, Harvard University is more than ready to get back in the public’s good graces.
My question is why should Harvard care about the public’s good graces? Wikipedia tells me Harvard has an annual operating budget of about 6 billion dollars, and an endowment of about 50 billion dollars. That means, with prudent management of the endowment, Harvard could fund itself for at least a decade without one penny of government support (through various types of grants, etc). In the world of academia, Harvard is a sovereign nation.
Sure, the average American might despise the institution, but it’s not marketing itself to average Americans. And if, by chance, the Republicans are reelected and try to take revenge on progressive Harvard, they could likely do some damage but attempts to cut federal dollars to Harvard would likely be met by a barrage of lawsuits alleging various kinds of discrimination.
Harvard as an institution is basically impregnable. The only thing at stake is the faculty’s perception of itself as the acme of virtue.

T Bone
T Bone
21 days ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Agreed but Hah-vard Men like social justice advocates need to be affirmed by the general public as elite or morally superior. Affirmation is a form of currency. Witholding affirmation is more bothersome to them than one might think.

J Bryant
J Bryant
21 days ago
Reply to  T Bone

Point taken.

Emre S
Emre S
21 days ago

I see this as the starting point of return to sanity for Harvard, but I suspect it’ll be a process yet.
The underlying issue was that Wokeist activism was mostly a free good at the start for the elite. One could declare themselves an “activist” in the corporate or academic world without facing any negative consequences or even do much, if any, work as a result of it. All one really had to do was toe the party line, occasionally accept incongruous or blatantly contradictory statements and the populists would be kept at bay as a result. Wokeism punished white working class men most who unsurprisingly made up the bulk of the support for the populist movement post the 2008 crisis.
Any free good will be abused until it causes a problem. Eventually the cost started to build up. Riots, organized crime, boycotts of Budwiser/Target but the final straw was anti-Semitism. The elite would tolerate financial loss or loss of academic integrity, but they couldn’t accept being labelled anti-Semites.
Now the magical wand that kept giving that was cultural Marxism stopped working. I don’t know if there’s a plan B. But I do know the incentives for being an out of control Wokeist have subsided, sanity should come back eventually.

J Bryant
J Bryant
21 days ago
Reply to  Emre S

sanity should come back eventually
So what’s your definition of “eventually”? A year, a decade, a century?

Emre S
Emre S
21 days ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I’d be very surprised if this went away in a year, and who knows what will happen in a century…

Thomas Wagner
Thomas Wagner
21 days ago
Reply to  Emre S

Make any prediction you like for a century hence. None of us will be around to call you on it.

Rob N
Rob N
21 days ago

I wonder, as Janice Fiamengo opines, if the appointment, over the last decades, of a large number of feminist women is a significant part of the problem. Women tend to be much less supportive of the need for truth in science and that allied with their feminism and probable lower academic ability (otherwise they wouldn’t have needed the ‘affirmative’ discrimination) could just be too much for any institution.

General Store
General Store
20 days ago
Reply to  Rob N

as an insider – 100%

JP Martin
JP Martin
20 days ago
Reply to  Rob N

This is undoubtedly true. The even uglier truth is that the prestige of both the professoriate (which was never truly deserved, granted) and the degrees awarded by the universities have diminished in tandem with the increase in the number of women on faculty and the proportion of women among the student body. Of course, we all observe this but are not supposed to say it.

Emmanuel MARTIN
Emmanuel MARTIN
21 days ago

The conclusion is wrong. You say “otherwise their commitment to institutional neutrality remains a public relations fix and nothing more.” . But you should scrap the first word of the sentence.
Neutrality will get some lip service, with a point of attention on not irritating donors via antisemitic stuff. But there is strictly zero intention to remove the progressive monoculture.

Sophy T
Sophy T
21 days ago

I wonder how Harvard is getting round the court case which it lost brought by East Asians who objected to African Americans needing lower grades than East Asians to gain entry.
Im sure Harvard and other universities in USA will find a way.

JP Martin
JP Martin
20 days ago

At a time when the existence of the two sexes has become a point of political contention and radicals shriek that “silence is complicity”, how exactly can one avoid making “controversial” statements? The universities need to cull the herd.