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University President Drew G. Faust laid out an impassioned defense of free speech—arguing that universities must not become “bubbles” isolated from popular discourse—in her annual Commencement address Thursday.
Facing thousands of poncho-clad new graduates and their families on a rainy afternoon in Tercentenary Theatre, Faust argued that today’s political climate is “highly polarized.” She added that the past few months have been perhaps the most divisive in American history since the Civil War—a trend she linked to recent controversies surrounding free speech on college campuses.
“[Free speech] has provoked debate, dissent, confrontation, and even violence on campuses across the country,” Faust said. “We can see here at Harvard how our inattentiveness to the power and appeal of conservative voices left much of our community astonished, blindsided by the outcome of last fall’s election.”
The election of President Donald Trump in November 2016 shocked Harvard’s largely liberal campus, causing some professors to postpone exams out of concern for students’ feelings.
Faust added that today’s “fractitious circumstances” serve only as a partial explanation for the increasing challenges to free speech at universities—another reason is that more diverse campuses have brought a wider range of viewpoints together.
“Universities themselves have changed dramatically in recent years,” Faust said. “Once overwhelmingly white, male, Protestant, and upper class, Harvard College is now half female, majority minority, religiously pluralistic, with nearly 60 percent of students able to attend because of financial aid.”
Questions about free speech on Harvard’s campus came to a peak in April 2017 when undergraduates formed a new group, dubbed the Open Campus Initiative. The group vowed to “test” the limits of the University’s commitment to free speech by inviting what some call hateful speakers to campus. The group’s first guest speaker, Jordan B. Peterson, a psychology professor who has faced criticism for his belief that gender and sex are not independent, elicited silent protest from many Harvard students.
Near the close of her remarks, Faust reaffirmed the University’s commitment to free speech.
“We must remember that limiting some speech opens the dangerous possibility that the speech that is ultimately censored may be our own,” Faust said. “If some words are to be treated as equivalent to physical violence and silenced or even prosecuted, who is to decide which words?”
“We need to hear those hateful ideas so our society is fully equipped to oppose and defeat them,” Faust added.
—Staff writer Hannah Natanson can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @hannah_natanson.
—Staff writer Derek G. Xiao can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @derekgxiao.
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