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For Two Years, Harvard ‘Intellectual Vitality Committee’ Has Quietly Discussed Campus Culture

University Hall, located in Harvard Yard, houses the offices of top College administrators, including Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana.
University Hall, located in Harvard Yard, houses the offices of top College administrators, including Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana. By Thomas Maisonneuve
By J. Sellers Hill, Crimson Staff Writer

A group of Harvard undergraduates, faculty, and alumni have been quietly meeting over the past two years to examine what they see as a lack of free idea exchange at the College.

Some members of the “Intellectual Vitality Committee,” facilitated by Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana, have also been invited to present to influential Harvard bodies including the Faculty Council and Board of Overseers — the University’s second-highest governing body.

Committee member Shira Z. Hoffer ’25 wrote in a statement that the group welcomed those who “feel like Harvard could be doing better in striving toward veritas.”

“The purpose of the committee is to brainstorm and implement ways to increase what we are calling ‘intellectual vitality’ on campus,” Hoffer wrote. “We believe that it is not just possible but crucial to engage with dissenting viewpoints, as long as we do so respectfully, and it is a passion for this engagement which brings us together.”

College spokesperson Jonathan Palumbo wrote in a statement that the College is committed to creating an environment of “open dialogue, vigorous inquiry, and intellectual exploration.”

“Dean Khurana has appreciated multiple opportunities to discuss intellectual vitality with students and faculty for the past two years.” the statement reads. “We will continue to have these discussions to strengthen the College’s culture of open dialogue, respectful disagreement, freedom to express one’s views, and openness to changing one’s mind.”

“Dean Khurana strongly believes in the importance of academic freedom, which allows students and faculty to engage in inquiry without fear of censorship or reprisal,” he added.

Member Jaya J. Nayar ’24 said the group is considering a variety of initiatives, including changes to the College’s admissions essays, orientation programming, and expository writing program.

Philosophy professor Edward J. “Ned” Hall, who helped form the group, said the committee has also discussed introducing an annual “citizens’ assembly” to debate campus issues.

“There’s one that a lot of us on the faculty — and I think students too — would love to see the University administration take up, which is to just issue a very clear, forceful statement about the importance of free inquiry on a college campus,” Hall said.

Hall is also the co-president of the recently announced Council for Academic Freedom at Harvard, a separate, faculty-led group focused on supporting “free inquiry, intellectual diversity, civil discourse,” according to its website.

Some members of the Intellectual Vitality Committee earlier this month presented to the Board of Overseers, in order to share experiences related to the free idea exchange on campus and to present their vision for improvement, Nayar said.

“We are really trying to reencourage disagreement and look for healthier forms of disagreement, rather than having things that are spats on the email chains or in GroupMes that really devolve into nothing but hurt feelings and bitter sentiments,” Nayar said.

Similar topics around free speech and academic freedom have recently come to the fore at peer schools, including Stanford and Cornell.

Still, professor of Astronomy Karin I. Öberg, a member of the Intellectual Vitality Committee, said she believes Harvard’s issues and solutions are distinct.

“I do think there are sort of somewhat different flavors of this at different universities, and I think it’s important that Harvard, as Harvard, also figures out what its mission is,” she said.

—Staff writer J. Sellers Hill can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SellersHill.

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