Debate over speech on university campuses—who is allowed to speak, what they can say, and to whom they can say it—has sparked protests, spawned advocacy organizations, and become a rallying cry among those on the right who charge that liberal-leaning universities are stifling conservative perspectives.
In recent years, the free speech debate has become entangled in conversations about campus diversity and inclusion, and politicians and activists increasingly discuss free speech and diversity in dichotomous terms. One recent nationwide survey even asked student respondents to choose one value over the other.
The argument has played out in university lecture halls, think tanks, editorial pages, and social media platforms.
At Harvard, it has come to a head at the Kennedy School.
In early September, the school’s decision to invite transgender activist and former U.S. Army soldier Chelsea Manning—who was imprisoned for leaking classified government documents—ignited a social media firestorm from the right.
Then-CIA director Mike Pompeo called Manning a “traitor” and canceled his scheduled appearance at the school in protest. Republican former governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney took to Twitter to applaud Pompeo’s decision, writing, “abject shame on Harvard.” And national media outlets—including Fox News and Breitbart—picked up the story. As the backlash spread, the Kennedy School rescinded Manning’s fellowship, calling her selection “a mistake.”
Meanwhile, over the past year, the school has invited a slew of conservative speakers and fellows, including President Donald Trump’s former chief of staff Reince Priebus, former Press Secretary Sean Spicer, former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, former RNC chair Ed Gillespie, and United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
With the prominent Republicans has come controversy. Students raised fists and posters in silent defiance when DeVos took the stage at the JFK Jr. Forum in September, despite the entreaties of Academic Dean Archon Fung.
“In a disturbing series of recent events, we’ve seen students and activists shut down conservative speakers at several college campuses over the past year. Shutting people down is contrary to the values of this space and the Harvard Kennedy School,” Fung said to the audience. “Here, we encourage the exchange of ideas and differing viewpoints. Even if we do not agree, especially if we do not agree, it is important to hear and allow others in attendance to listen and speak as well.”
Students, though, say the school’s recent efforts to bring prominent conservatives to campus in the name of civil discourse has sometimes come at the cost of racial diversity and inclusion. The resignation of three prominent women of color drew attention in recent months to the dearth of minority students, faculty, and administrators at the school.
Professor Stephen Goldsmith said he believes the school “should be more representative” of a “broad array” of racial, gender, and political identities.
“I think the school needs all of the above and has a way to go,” Goldsmith said.
Which way to go, though, is a point of contention. Administrators, citing a commitment to free speech, have placed emphasis on attracting a range of political viewpoints. Students, however, are more focused on making the school a welcoming place for minorities—a priority some say gets lost amid administrators’ push for ideological diversity.
Mid-career student John D. Krohn said his year at the school was full of “surprises.” Krohn, who identifies as a moderate Republican, added that one of those surprises was the sheer number of conservative speakers represented in the school’s forums.
“Certainly the administration, the dean, has made it a point to bring in conservative voices throughout the year,” Krohn said. “The idea that in the 10 months that I've been here, you've got Jason Chaffetz coming in, you've got most recently Reince Priebus and Corey Lewandowski and Sean Spicer and Betsy DeVos.”
In an interview this semester, Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf said the Kennedy School benefits from having “more prominent conservative voices.”
“I do think about how to present a full range of views at the Kennedy School and make sure that people who don’t agree are talking about those disagreements and not just ducking each other,” he said.
Administrators’ emphasis on ideological diversity is not new; former dean Joseph S. Nye said including voices from across the political spectrum is essential to the student experience.
“I think it’s important for the school entity, for Harvard, to have different points of view represented so that students can hear different points of view,” Nye said. “I think people learn better when they are confronted with diversity of opinion.”
Conservative students, meanwhile, say they would like the school to do even more to elevate perspectives on the right.
Krohn said he thought inviting conservative speakers is a “good” but “transitory” effort.
“They need to create institutions that would perpetuate a diversity of thought rather than just having a handful of people in a semester that come in that represent that different political thought process,” Krohn said.
Professor Marshall Ganz questioned the extent to which the Kennedy School should elevate these voices.
“I mean, should every university have a Trump perspective? I'm not so sure,” he said. “I think there are boundaries and there's lines in terms of what responsible perspectives are and I think that has to be respected.”
Fung acknowledged in an interview that certain speakers might make HKS affiliates from certain backgrounds uncomfortable.
“Say we invited the director of Trump's homeland security, and they came and gave a talk about what the immigration policy was. People who support immigrant rights might rightfully feel quite disrespected and hurt by what they said,” he said.
But, he added, “I think that's a policy debate in the United States. This is happening right now, and it's important to have a conversation about those policies.”
The Kennedy School needs both more conservatives and more people of color, according to a May 2017 draft report of an HKS task force on diversity and inclusion.
The absence of these perspectives is particularly notable, the report says, at public events and speeches, which the task force described as “crucial to our campus environment.”
“Many in our community have the impression that there are powerful biases at work when units at the School organize events and invite speakers,” the draft report reads. “For example, there appear to be relatively few visitors from conservative perspectives. Many panels and discussions series seem to have more men than women and few people of color.”
Over the past six years, approximately half of the residential fellows at the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics have openly identified as liberal, and the other half as conservative. The racial and gender makeup of the fellow classes from 2012 to 2018 follows a predictable pattern; for a majority of classes, there are roughly four men and two women—and of those, one or two are people of color.
Amy A. Howell, the Executive Director of the IOP, said student input informs whom they invite to campus, as does a desire to invite a diverse set of speakers.
“In all 15 programs throughout the Institute of Politics, including the Fellows and Study Groups program, we actively seek a diversity of political thought, gender, race, and ethnicity in order to provide multiple perspectives and viewpoints to the Harvard community,” Howell said.
In addition to the IOP fellows, the school has invited a number of prominent conservative guests this year. Some students, though, say it has failed to make similar strides on more permanent representation of minorities and women at the school.
According to the task force report, the school employed five black faculty members in 2017, two of whom were tenured professors. In 2017, only two faculty members identified as “Hispanic.” In 2015—the most recent year for which the report provides student statistics—black students made up 4 percent of the student body, those the report describes as “Hispanic-Americans” made up 7 percent, and Asian-Americans made up 10 percent.
The paucity of underrepresented minority faculty and staff has left students from those backgrounds with insufficient mentors and advisors at the school, the task force report says. And it has spurred activism over the course of the spring semester by students who say the school must do more to recruit and support students and faculty of color.
Student activists hung signs around the school expressing their concerns, penned pledges to urge students and faculty to commit to promoting diversity, and met with Elmendorf and newly hired Associate Dean of Diversity Robbin Chapman.
Within the first few days of her arrival in April, Chapman discussed concerns about the climate of the school at a town hall with faculty and students. “We have a lot to talk about,” she said at the time in response to a comment about women of color leaving the school.
Several students involved in these efforts said they feel administrators’ emphasis on ideological diversity poses a challenge to their cause, since they said it implicitly leads to a decline in other dimensions of diversity.
Amanda R. Matos, a first-year Master in Public Policy student, said she was “concerned” with the school’s focus on increasing conservative representation because she said she thinks it might impact the school’s racial and gender makeup.
“By only focusing on increasing conservative voices, we are inadvertently pushing back and delaying the importance of racial diversity and gender diversity,” Matos said.
Kennedy School spokesperson Doug Gavel declined to comment.
Bryan Cortes, a MPP/MBA student who is involved with the HKS Latinx Caucus, wrote in an email that he “welcomed” the initiative to bring in more conservatives, but he wanted administrators to have “the same sense of urgency” to increase black and Latinx representation.
“A few of us have joked that at least they should invite Ted Cruz to increase the Latinx/Hispanic representation in the pool of conservative voices on campus,” he wrote.
Professor Khalil G. Muhammad said wrapping ideological differences into conversations about diversity undermines the primary goal of promoting diversity.
“Sketching the whole point or value system to accommodate political diversity ultimately will erode the very reason for diversity, which grows out of civil rights organizing and the need for policy that would make real the context for greater access to people of color who had been historically marginalized both in terms of their bodies and their voices in institutions like Harvard and elsewhere,” Muhammad said.
Gavel declined to comment.
The introduction of the diversity task force report opens with a mission statement: “The mission of the Harvard Kennedy School is [to] train public leaders and improve public policy to make people’s lives safer, more prosperous and more fulfilling through our teaching, research and engagement with practice.”
But the debate between proponents of ideological diversity and proponents of racial diversity at the school has opened up conflicting interpretations of that mission.
For Elmendorf, it often means advancing “the value of civil discourse.”
“Respecting each person means to me listening to their perspective, trying to see the world through their eyes,” he said in a February interview.
“We need to see more of that civil discourse in the members of the US Congress, in many foreign leaders and we need to model that here in the Kennedy School as well,” he added. “That’s why we insist about bringing people with a wide range of views and hearing them out.”
Standing in front of attendees and protesters at the DeVos event in September, Fung emphasized the need for school affiliates to escape “our own echo chambers.”
“The Kennedy School is all about understanding differences and building bridges,” he said.
Rosi Greenberg, a second-year MPP student, said that while administrators are placing emphasis on engaging with different political viewpoints, many students believe promoting racial and ethnic diversity better trains students to advance equitable public policy.
“It's not just diversity to include as many different people as possible, it's diversity to move forward agendas of more equity in our society, more structural justice,” Greenberg said. “The reason to have diversity is not just to have a lot of different people in the room—it's to be able to move forward policies and practices that are more equitable.”
Elorm F. Avakame, an MPP/MD student, said the lack of available mentors of color at the school creates a disconnect between the school’s offerings and student’s interests.
“There is a lot of energy around antipoverty policy,” Avakame said. “I would like to see kind of a similar energy around race and racism and real scholarship around that work, not just how it manifests in a contemporary moment, but how the history of this country has been shaped by those forces.”
The school has pledged to take a number of steps to address students’ concerns about diversity and inclusion—according to Gavel, they will hold implicit bias training for application readers, “monitor searches to identify opportunities” to change faculty hiring processes, and “evaluate the benefits and costs” of a post-doc program for scholars from underrepresented groups.
Some students worry, though, that the pace of change around racial diversity remains slow, and MPP student Claris J. Chang criticized administrators for being “conflict averse.”
“The new thing that the diversity and inclusion and excellence report said is to speak bravely and listen generously, and I don't think our leadership is modeling speaking bravely on what they believe in,” Chang said.
Fung agreed that leadership should do “more of that,” and can better train people to engage in future conversations around difference.
“I have heard that faculty and students don't have the skills and the capacities that they need to have these difficult conversations when people disagree and I certainly agree with that,” Fung said. “I think we all need to do better.”
—Staff writer Alexandra A. Chaidez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @a_achaidez.
—Staff writer Ruth A. Hailu can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on twitter @ruth_hailu_