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Opportunity and Culture: We Need Both for Free Speech

Diversity of thought cannot exist on campus if nobody is listening.

One of the goals of Harvard’s Institute of Politics is to bring a variety of political opinions into campus conversations. Through events held at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum and the visiting fellows’ study groups, students are able to learn about perspectives on major political issues from the left, right, and center.

This is a seemingly noble cause, especially as many Americans grow wary of the sanctity of free speech on college campuses. They fear that non-liberal thought will lose its place in higher education, cranking out a generation of students with uniform views. Just last week, many voiced concerns about Government Professor Harvey C. Mansfield Jr. ’53 and his disinvitation to speak at Concordia Liberal Arts College in Canada due to his outspoken conservative views.

No matter how many ideologically diverse events are held for students, turnout is low if speakers and hosts are not promoting a liberal agenda. Is this truly an inclusive environment? Though conservative students and guests continue to be invited to speak out, they are not, however, truly a part of the mainstream conversations on campus. Organizations like the IOP must continue to present a variety of speakers and ideologies to at least offer the opportunity of exposure to different views. But their efforts are fruitless if we refuse to listen and engage. The opportunities for inclusion are here — the culture is not.

A large contingent of Americans are especially concerned about a perceived lack of free speech in higher education, as demonstrated by President Donald Trump’s recent executive order to take away certain funding conditional on the status of free speech on campuses. College campuses are no strangers to conservative criticism regarding a lack of intellectual diversity. Many students now demand increased openness on college campuses, and campuses struggle to balance free speech with inclusivity. Some institutions like the IOP are actively addressing these criticisms and trying to create a more open dialogue on campuses. In this way, the IOP is doing its part by hosting an array of speakers from all different ideological, cultural, and sexual backgrounds.

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But are we doing our part?

Since I became involved in the Fellows and Study Groups program, I have noticed that groups headed by conservative fellows receive only a fraction of the attendance as groups led by liberals. U.S. Representatives Carlos L. Curbelo (R-Fla.) Barbara J. Comstock (R-Va.) have to fight for attendance at their groups, while more liberal fellows easily draw a crowd. And content is certainly not the issue: Curbelo, for example, often covers immigration and climate change reform, both popular issues of discussion on college campuses. For example, University President Lawrence S. Bacow recently wrote a letter in support of pro-DACA regulation while just last week, many Harvard students participated in the Divest Harvard rally related to climate change.

Even more concerning is the fact that Curbelo advocates for a progressive approach to climate change, seeking government leadership to implement sustainable policies like carbon taxes. As a result, I believe that his groups are not as well attended because he is branded as a conservative, not because of the content his group discusses.

The opportunity is there for us. Conservative speakers are welcomed on campus and their narratives are publicized by the IOP. However, we are generally not listening. And if we are not listening, is there truly a culture acceptance, inclusion, and open dialogue on campus?

As a moderately conservative individual, I never feel as if I cannot speak up in class or discussions. I never feel that groups representing my views are absent. And I never feel ostracized for my beliefs by my peers. I just feel ignored.

There is a culture on campus that allows all beliefs to be heard but legitimizes few. Think about your token “Republican friend.” That classmate that means well but “has no idea what they’re talking about.” Someone you hang out with and work with but do not intellectually engage with.

How much do their opinions really count, no matter how many platforms they are given to express them?

Students are missing an opportunity to broaden their views and become acquainted with the views they will have to encounter when they leave the Harvard bubble. Speech is not being restricted; rather, conservative voices are being drowned out of the dialogue, our view of the world. And what’s more, conservative students end up feeling powerless in their classes, clubs, and communities.

So how do we fix this? How do we encourage true diversity of thought? How do we get attendance up at Republican fellows’ meetings?

The answer lies in the classroom.

Yes, we have our Mansfields and our Jeffrey A. Mirons, but who else? As a Government concentrator, I am conditioned to expect a liberal curriculum and prepare myself for the uphill ideological battle I will have to face, especially when most teaching fellows and professors identify as liberal. It is easy enough to participate in sections and lectures with a traditionally liberal response, something I have done. It is not, however, easy to offer conservative answers. You will not get the nods and snaps of approval from your peers, and you will immediately be countered. It’s good to hear other perspectives but challenging and limiting to feel constantly invalidated.

How will students listen to their ideological counterparts if the people that teach us legitimize only one side? We need more people in Harvard’s positions of power — department heads, course heads, and the like — who legitimize conservative and libertarian views. Bringing the conservative and libertarian ideologies into the mainstream of academia will not only create a better dialogue between diverse groups but will also decrease hostility. As conservatives and their constituents feel more welcomed, their hostility to college culture as a whole will diminish.

Let’s celebrate the political opportunities available to all of us, but let’s also make sure they make an equal impact on the community and its culture. We can talk as much as we want — but who’s listening?

Carine M. Hajjar ’21, an Editorial comper, is a Government concentrator in Eliot House.

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