The Ivy League university's approach has been labelled 'abysmal'
Harvard University has been ranked as America’s worst college for free speech, with its attitude to open expression described as “abysmal”.
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) has today published its annual rankings of US colleges for how freely students feel they can speak. Harvard, the Ivy League college based in Massachusetts, sits squarely at the bottom of the list of 248 institutions.
Harvard’s score of 0.00 is the lowest possible on FIRE’s scale, though the real figure is “more than six standard deviations below the average”. The report sampled over 50,000 undergraduate students nationwide, basing its scoring system on factors including “comfort expressing ideas”, “tolerance for speakers” and “administrative support”. Colleges were also judged on how frequently and severely they have sanctioned students, academics and visiting speakers.
FIRE recorded nine deplatforming attempts at Harvard since 2019, seven of which resulted in sanctions. These included the high-profile cases of the feminist philosopher Devin Buckley, who was disinvited last year by college faculty as a result of her perceived views about transgender people, as well as the rescinding of the offer of a fellowship to the human rights activist Kenneth Roth, also in 2022. The dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School, Douglas Elmendorf, was found to have blocked the appointment, on account of Roth’s alleged criticism of Israel. This decision was then reversed.
The British magazine Times Higher Education this year selected Harvard as the second best university in the world, and the best in North America. The Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), founded in 2003, has ranked Harvard as the top global university every year since its initial release. The elite Ivy League group, comprising eight universities, has consistently performed poorly on the FIRE scale, with last year’s table propped up by Columbia University. This year, 69th-placed Brown University was the highest performing of the Ivies, with the next best of the eight, Princeton, sitting in 187th.
Harvard’s attitude to the free exchange of views within its student body has been hardening in recent years, with the university’s FIRE score decreasing from 55.5 in 2021-22 to 34.5 last year and now to the minimum possible tally. Still, there are internal efforts underway to tackle its culture of intolerance. In April of this year, over 100 faculty members joined the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard, led by the cognitive psychologist and writer Steven Pinker. The group has vowed to defend open discussion on campus and provide support for colleagues targeted for their scholarly work. In a mission statement, the Council claimed:
In its survey, FIRE has quoted Harvard students who feel “hesitation to share controversial opinions for fear that people would jump on me”, as well as recognising a “general feeling that expressing certain political views is something that is simply not done”. One undergraduate responded, when asked whether they’d ever felt they could not speak openly on campus, “I’d rather not say, because I might receive repercussions.”