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As Harvard’s Statements on Israel-Hamas War Stir Controversy, Some Affiliates Call for Policy of Institutional Neutrality

Harvard affiliates are urging the University to adopt an official position of political neutrality.
Harvard affiliates are urging the University to adopt an official position of political neutrality. By Joey Huang
By Emma H. Haidar and Cam E. Kettles, Crimson Staff Writers

A growing number of Harvard affiliates are urging the University to adopt an official position of political neutrality in the wake of backlash over the administration’s response to the Israel-Hamas war.

The push comes after Harvard issued a series of statements in the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel that sparked international outrage for not directly condemning Hamas or addressing antisemitism on campus in forceful enough terms.

The backlash intensified following Harvard President Claudine Gay’s testimony during a Dec. 5 congressional hearing about antisemitism on college campuses.

During the hearing, Rep. Elise M. Stefanik ’06 (R-N.Y.) pressed Gay on whether calls for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s code of conduct. When Gay declined to offer an unequivocal answer to Stefanik’s line of questioning, the University came under further fire — and Gay’s job was left in peril.

As the University weathered weeks of sustained criticism from students, faculty, alumni, and donors alike over its public statements about the conflict, some affiliates have begun to wonder whether silence should be the default.

The argument that universities should maintain neutrality was made famous by a 1967 committee report from the University of Chicago. The Kalven Report — named after the UChicago law professor who chaired the committee — argued for “a heavy presumption against the university taking collective action or expressing opinions” to protect free speech and encourage diverse perspectives.

But amid waves of intense backlash over Harvard’s response to the war in Israel and Gaza, the push for a policy of institutional neutrality at the University — which would limit Harvard administrators from commenting on external events not directly related to campus issues — has been given new life.

Just four days after Harvard released its initial statement on the Israel-Hamas conflict, former Harvard Medical School Dean Jeffrey S. Flier penned an op-ed in the Chronicle of Higher Education calling for Harvard to adopt a position of institutional neutrality.

Flier, a co-president of the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard, said in a November interview that he joined other faculty members to “consider what a set of Kalven principles might look like at Harvard.”

Policies of institutional neutrality are already in place at a handful of universities, including the University of Chicago, the University of North Carolina, and Vanderbilt University. Last fall, Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber instructed a faculty committee to consider adopting a similar policy, though no guidelines have been approved yet.

Some Harvard affiliates have argued that institutional political neutrality is necessary to ensure the University’s public responses to national and world events are consistent. In particular, some criticized Harvard’s statements following the Oct. 7 attack for a lack of forcefulness.

After the police killing of George Floyd in 2020, Gay — then the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences — penned an unequivocal rejection of police brutality and violence.

But many — including the Harvard Corporation, the University’s highest governing body — said Harvard’s initial response to Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel lacked the same force. Though Gay later explicitly condemned Hamas in a subsequent statement, some felt it was too little too late.

Prominent critics — including Stefanik and former Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers — also pointed to the decision by former Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow, Gay’s predecessor, to fly the Ukrainian flag over Harvard Yard after Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Harvard President Claudine Gay's decision to not fly the Israeli flag over Harvard Yard stood in stark contrast to her predecessor allowing the Ukrainian flag to fly over the Yard in 2022.
Harvard President Claudine Gay's decision to not fly the Israeli flag over Harvard Yard stood in stark contrast to her predecessor allowing the Ukrainian flag to fly over the Yard in 2022. By Cory K. Gorczycki

In a response to a line of questioning from Stefanik during the Dec. 5 congressional hearing, Gay admitted she received a request to fly the Israeli flag in Harvard Yard but declined to do so.

Faced with the allegation of hypocrisy by Stefanik, Gay cited a standard protocol at the University to only fly the American flag unless there is a visiting dignitary. Bacow’s decision, Gay said, was an exception to this long-standing policy.

Summers said in a November interview with The Crimson that “universities in general should not comment on all controversies” but took particular issue with the perceived lack of consistency across public responses from Harvard.

“There is an obligation of consistency with respect to different moral issues, like racism and antisemitism,” Summers said. “If not consistency, explanation.”

Harvard spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment for this article.

Kenneth Roth — a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center and former executive director of Human Rights Watch — described Harvard’s precedent for sending campus-wide emails commenting following tragedies and political conflicts as “the original sin.”

“This initial impetus to comment on global events stemmed from a laudable, greater concern with student wellbeing,” Roth said. “But it was then a relatively short step from those expressions of sympathy and concern to commentary on the event itself.”

Harvard psychology professor Steven A. Pinker, a co-president of the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard, wrote in the Boston Globe that when a university releases a political statement, “inevitably there will be constituencies who feel a statement is too strong, too weak, too late, or wrongheaded.”

A university, Pinker wrote, should be “a forum for debate, not a protagonist in debates.”

—Staff writer Emma H. Haidar can be reached at emma.haidar@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @HaidarEmma.

—Staff writer Cam E. Kettles can be reached at cam.kettles@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @cam_kettles or on Threads @camkettles.

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