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To Move Forward, Harvard Must Refocus on Its Mission

By Boaz Barak, Contributing Opinion Writer
Boaz Barak is a Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science.

Despite writing two open letters and a blog post criticizing our University leadership’s response to the events of Oct. 7, I take no joy in now-former President Claudine Gay’s resignation.

Only three months into her tenure, President Gay was thrust into an incredibly challenging situation — and while she has made several missteps, she did many things right. Her Oct. 27 speech at Harvard Hillel was powerful and moving. Many of us resonated with her definition of antisemitism as a “lie [that] has taken many forms, from Holocaust denial to the blood libel … to the denial of the Jewish people’s historical ties to the land of Israel.” I was also pleased to meet Gay at the Dec. 8 interfaith vigil, organized by the Harvard Chaplains, that included speeches by both Hillel Rabbi Getzel Davis and Muslim Chaplain Khalil Abdur-Rashid, among others. It was an essential step toward the healing that our campus sorely needs.

In her letter, Gay announced that she resigned so that Harvard could “focus on the institution rather than any individual.” Indeed, our challenges are institutional rather than personal. Members of Congress and the general public were rightly angered when three university presidents, Gay included, gave legalistic and convoluted answers to the question of whether calls for the genocide of Jews violate university policy during a Dec. 5, hearing in the House of Representatives.

The public’s response may have been very different if Harvard had a reputation for ironclad protection of freedom of speech. But this is not the world we live in.

In 2017, Harvard rescinded the admission of at least ten students for posting offensive memes in a private group chat. In 2018, a Harvard employee was put on leave a week after a video was posted on social media of her asking her neighbor if she lived in affordable housing. In 2019, Harvard declined to renew the appointment of Winthrop Faculty Deans Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. and Stephanie R. Robinson after Sullivan chose to take on Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, who was accused of multiple rapes (and subsequently convicted on a number of charges), as a legal client. And in 2023, Harvard scored last out of 248 schools in the yearly free speech ranking put out by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a nonpartisan watchdog advocating for free speech at American educational institutions and broader society.

Against this backdrop, Harvard’s actions in regard to campus speech following Oct. 7, were more than a little incongruous. On that day, Hamas terrorists slaughtered families, raped women, and kidnapped many civilians, ranging from a 9-month-old baby to an 85-year-old great-grandmother.

The infamous student group statement released the same day, which called Israel “entirely responsible” for the attacks, was discussed ad nauseam, but Harvard students’ social media posts were much worse. Students celebrated the “decolonization struggle” and a student posted anonymously that the “US just cant support Palestine bc we got too many damn jews in state supporting our economy.” In a pro-Palestinian protest just a week after the attack (and before Israel’s ground offensive), a student speaker announced his “full support of the Palestine resistance” and said that “marginalized people … are always demanded to justify their means of liberation … they’re not terrorists.”

Since then, protests have regularly included slogans that many — myself included — interpret as calls for violence and ethnic cleansing, such as “globalize the intifada” and “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” (sometimes with its more explicit version in Arabic, which ends with “Palestine will be Arab”). Yet, Harvard has never shut down any of these protests. Somehow, when Jews were involved, Harvard rediscovered its commitment to protecting speech even when it is offensive.

Can we find a way to move forward from this, and balance freedom of speech with safety and inclusion? I believe that the answer is yes. In a recent op-ed published in the Washington Post, Danielle Allen suggested that we can.

For starters, Harvard administration should focus on the form of speech or protest rather than the content. A disruption to a class or invited talk is unacceptable, no matter how worthy the cause. On the other hand, we should learn to accept and be okay with the fact that there will be opinions expressed on this campus that we find offensive or even abhorrent. I strongly disagree with almost all of Kenneth Roth’s comments on Israel, but his experience and perspective make his presence valuable to our campus.

Like Allen, Psychology professor Steven A. Pinker called on Harvard to protect freedom of speech and follow institutional neutrality without tolerating violence or disruptions. This does not mean giving up on inclusion.

As Allen explains, “DEI bureaucracies have been responsible for numerous assaults on common sense, but the values of lowercase-i inclusion and lowercase-d diversity remain foundational to healthy democracy.”

With the focus on rancor and missteps, we can sometimes forget what makes Harvard a special place. Every day, I am grateful for the privilege of spending time with our immensely talented students, who come from many different backgrounds and often teach me as much as I do them. I am thankful for my past and present colleagues who made discoveries that reshaped our understanding of the world and improved countless lives.

For over three centuries, Harvard has been a powerful force for scientific and intellectual advancement in this nation and the world. To continue this mission, we must regain the trust of both our own community and broader society. I share President Gay’s hope that we can “recommit ourselves to the excellence, the openness, and the independence that are crucial to what our university stands for — and to our capacity to serve the world.”

Updated: January 4, 2024, at 11:52 p.m.

Boaz Barak is a Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science.

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