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At last Wednesday’s faculty meeting Professor Susan Suleiman, acting chair of the department of Romance Languages and Literatures, said that as an educational institution Harvard should use its position to make a statement against social inequalities. Suleiman, like many others supportive of the Occupy Harvard movement, believes that social inequality is an important issue to address in today’s society—and we agree. However, asking the University to issue statements about issues as broad as social inequality detracts from its educational mission. Harvard should, and does, speak out about and lobby on behalf of issues that directly affect students and on various policies that affect it directly, but when it comes to making broader political statements we must remember that Harvard is a university, not a think tank.
As an educational institution, Harvard has a responsibility first and foremost to promote free discourse. While there are certainly instances when limits must be imposed, it is not our place to stifle discourse about contemporary political issues by taking broad stances on issues such as inequality. If Harvard bows to Suleiman’s demands and issues a statement condemning social inequality in all its forms, who is to say that they should not also endorse a presidential candidate, or impose a political litmus test for faculty.
To be sure, there are some instances in which Harvard’s political involvement is necessary and proper. Our lobbyists in Washington have knocked on doors for the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, and we have used our high visibility to advocate for the repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy and greater freedoms concerning scientific research. In each of those cases, however, the advocacy has been directly tied to Harvard’s mission as an educational institution, whether in ensuring access for all students, upholding our non-discrimination policy, or advocating in favor of the unhindered pursuit of knowledge. We must be careful to not overstep our boundaries and shift from being an educational institution to an advocacy organization.
To be sure, there are ways that Harvard can continue and expand its commitment to greater social equality without trips to Washington. As an institution, Harvard should promote greater social responsibility by encouraging an ethic of public service among its students and provide those students with more opportunities and information about careers in that field. In the case of fixing social inequality, as with many other issues, Harvard should lead with actions, not with political statements.
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