By Natalie Y. Zhang

‘This Has to Stop’: Harvard Set to Consider Institutional Neutrality

Interim Harvard President Alan M. Garber ’76 is expected to announce a working group that will consider a policy of institutional neutrality, a move that comes just months after the University became embroiled in controversy over its response to Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel.
By Tilly R. Robinson and Neil H. Shah

Interim Harvard President Alan M. Garber ’76 is expected to announce a working group that will consider a policy of institutional neutrality, a move that comes just months after the University became embroiled in controversy over its response to Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

A formal stance of neutrality, in which Harvard would refrain from making political statements as an institution, would be a marked shift from the University’s current approach to politics. It would also, in theory, help the University avoid the pressure it’s faced in the past to take political positions on contentious issues — such as the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Eric S. Maskin ’72, a University Professor, told The Crimson that Garber intends to release a public statement about institutional neutrality. Former Harvard Medical School Dean Jeffrey S. Flier and another person familiar with the decision both confirmed the announcement would entail the creation of a working group on the policy.

Harvard spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain confirmed the University’s plans in a statement to The Crimson.

“Having heard growing discussion and interest across the community, the University is planning a process to engage community members on their views and considerations related to institutional neutrality,” Swain wrote.

Though no formal announcement has been made yet, Flier suggested it had been in the works for some time.

But even the policy’s most ardent supporters acknowledge that its implementation would require a significant conceptual lift — one that Harvard’s upcoming working group will have to consider.

Institutional neutrality requires serious consideration of where Harvard should choose to set its own boundaries: When Harvard is itself implicated in politics, how should it weigh in? Where does it draw the line between condemning harmful and hateful speech — like an antisemitic image posted by two student groups — and taking a stance of its own?

And yet, despite the complexities that would arise if Harvard adopts institutional neutrality, a growing number of faculty members — including some of the University’s most prominent scholars — say they believe it should.

‘All Of This Could Have Been Avoided’

On Dec. 5, in the midst of a tense Capitol Hill hearing, Rep. Elise M. Stefanik ’06 (R-N.Y.) laid a trap for then-Harvard President Claudine Gay.

“Did anyone contact you about flying the Israeli flag over Harvard Yard?” Stefanik asked.

“Yes,” Gay answered.

Stefanik followed up: “And the decision was made not to allow the flag to be flown over Harvard Yard?”

“It’s been standard protocol at the University for years to only fly the American flag unless we have a visiting dignitary,” Gay said.

Stefanik confronted Gay with an accusation of hypocrisy, pointing to her predecessor’s decision — less than two years earlier — to raise the Ukrainian flag over Harvard Yard in a display of solidarity after Russia’s full-scale invasion. No senior Ukrainian officials were on campus at the time.

“So, the University made an exception for the Ukrainian flag, but not the Israeli flag,” Stefanik pressed.

“That was a choice made by my predecessor,” Gay said.

While the two decisions were made by two different leaders, Stefanik’s point landed: the University, as an institution, had strayed from precedent for Ukraine, but enforced it for Israel.

Harvard put up a Ukrainian flag on University Hall on March 1, 2022 to show its support for Ukraine. The flag remained flying for several weeks.
Harvard put up a Ukrainian flag on University Hall on March 1, 2022 to show its support for Ukraine. The flag remained flying for several weeks. By Julian J. Giordano

The exchange was overshadowed by other segments of the hearing, which would lead to Gay’s resignation less than a month later. But that allegation of hypocrisy illustrated what many faculty now see as a pernicious problem: relentless pressure on the University to publicly respond to political crises.

“Critics count the number of hours between a tragic event and a statement and use that as a metric to decide how much and whether the administration cares; they then police every word once a statement is issued,” History professor Alison Frank Johnson wrote in an email.

“This has to stop,” she added.

Gay’s initial message on Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack was slammed for being weak, slow, and equivocal, especially in comparison to Harvard’s responses to the invasion of Ukraine and the death of George Floyd. The message, which came on Oct. 9 and was signed by all of Harvard’s top deans, would become the first in a series of no fewer than seven public statements on campus divisions over the war in Gaza by Gay’s administration.

As the University failed to appease critics on either side of the Israel-Palestine conflict, the backlash escalated into a full-blown international scandal.

In the months since, Harvard has struggled to contain a growing donor exodus and become the subject of lawsuits and several federal investigations. The pressure contributed to Gay’s decision to step down, plunging the University into its worst leadership crisis in more than 50 years.

“At Harvard, all of this could have been avoided,” Maskin said.

“I think if we were able to put a institutional neutrality policy in place at Harvard, that would make things better,” he added. “Not just from the standpoint of academic freedom, but from not having these terrible distractions all the time.”

‘Serious Consideration’

Shortly after Oct. 7, as criticism began to foment against the University, Maskin met with University Professor Gary King and the five co-presidents of the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard. Together, they began researching what institutional neutrality would mean for Harvard, inspired by the University of Chicago’s long-standing policy of not commenting on current events.

Maskin and the study group broached the idea with then-University President Gay. She agreed, Maskin wrote in an email, that “institutional neutrality was worthy of serious consideration.”

As Harvard’s leadership woes continued, the faculty members concluded that the policy was the way to go. Their next objective — per Maskin and Flier, a CAFH co-president— was to draft a set of principles they all agreed a neutral institution should follow.

A few short months after they started — and as the new administration settled into Massachusetts Hall — they sent their proposal to Garber’s office.

Though Garber has yet to publicly issue a statement on institutional neutrality, the forthcoming working group is the clearest indication yet that he is taking the idea seriously, and that a substantial reimagining of Harvard’s role in politics could be in the University’s future.

As Harvard’s leadership seems to be warming up to the idea, so are its professors. Across emails and interviews, more than 30 faculty members indicated they supported adopting institutional neutrality in some form — a vast majority of faculty members who responded to The Crimson.

“If the University just got out of the business of commenting on controversies and current events, they’d save themselves a whole lot of trouble,” said Psychology professor and CAFH co-president Steven A. Pinker, who proposed adopting institutional neutrality in a Boston Globe op-ed published four days after Gay’s congressional testimony.

Psychology professor Steven A. Pinker is a co-lead of the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard.
Psychology professor Steven A. Pinker is a co-lead of the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard. By Josie W. Chen

“Taking an ideological stand should not be the decision of administrators who feel pressured to do so by a political and media complex that feeds on hot takes and partisanship,” Theater, Dance, and Media producer James P. Stanley wrote in an email.

While Maskin backs institutional neutrality, he acknowledges situations in which it’s “practically unavoidable” to make a statement, such as when Harvard itself is implicated.

Still, he reaffirmed his belief that institutional neutrality is the best path forward for a battered Harvard — pointing to UChicago’s policy as one to emulate.

“I don’t think that the exceptions have caused Chicago great difficulty, and I wouldn’t expect that they would cause great difficulty at Harvard either,” Maskin said. “But any institutional neutrality policy is going to require a lot of hard thinking about the details.”

Drawing the Line

If Harvard were to adopt a statement of neutrality, it would be far from a panacea for the school’s current problems. The University would almost certainly continue to face calls to censure controversial speech from pro-Palestine organizers, whose activism has not let up in the spring semester.

So far, Garber’s administration has indicated a renewed willingness to enforce regulations on the time, place, and manner of student protest. And some situations make for simpler calls — such as Garber’s condemnation Tuesday of an antisemitic image shared online by two pro-Palestine student groups. But there are tougher situations, such as how an ostensibly neutral Harvard would respond to language some consider political rhetoric but others see as hate speech.

“There are always going to be cases somewhere in the boundary,” Maskin said. “Part of a thoroughgoing institutional neutrality policy — which I think Harvard would have to develop if it wanted to go down that route — would be to try to spell out what is bullying and harassment, and what is permissible speech.”

Maskin is a member of CAFH, whose co-presidents — Flier, Pinker, former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68, Harvard Law School professor Jeannie Suk Gersen, and Philosophy professor Edward J. “Ned” Hall — have emerged at the forefront of the push for institutional neutrality.

To proponents, institutional neutrality not only protects the University from outside forces, but also protects scholars from the speech of administrators stifling campus debate.

The University “should not prejudice any of its students or any of its faculty,” Pinker said. “It should not set them in opposition to their own employer, their own grader, their own judge.”

Publicly, CAFH has not endorsed institutional neutrality, although the group circulated a January donor prospectus highlighting it as an active area of member interest.

But many of its members — as well as, notably, Flier, Lewis, and Pinker — have rebuked Harvard as too weak on language from pro-Palestine activists they see as antisemitic.

On Oct. 8, Flier and Pinker helped draft a faculty letter criticizing Gay’s initial statement on the conflict for failing to distance the University from a controversial Oct. 7 student group statement holding Israel “entirely responsible” for the violence, accusing the student groups of “approving” Hamas’ attack.

The perceived political bent has alienated some professors. At least two former CAFH members — Classics professor Richard F. Thomas and Government professor Ryan D. Enos — left the organization due to concerns that CAFH was unwilling to fully defend free speech.

Thomas pointed to CAFH executive director Flynn J. Cratty’s use of the CAFH email list to circulate the letter condemning the student groups’ Oct. 7 statement.

Enos said he was disappointed in “members and some leadership” of CAFH who “chose not only to not protect unpopular speech among students” — particularly pro-Palestine organizers — but also “in many ways actually led the charge to try to condemn those students.”

Cratty did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Flier emphasized that his statements — and Pinker’s — were made in the context of Harvard as it stands now, with its practice of taking stances on geopolitical issues, and, in recent months, student speech.

“Presidents and deans were making statements on many different issues. Then, October 7th happened,” Flier said. “Headlines around the world were saying Harvard student groups say ‘X, Y, and Z.’ And, I think everybody was waiting to see what the University leadership would or would not say.”

When Harvard’s leaders speak out, it’s not always obvious whether their words convey personal beliefs or represent the University’s official position. Institutional neutrality, if adopted, might oblige them to stay silent, even if that silence is at odds with their own deeply held beliefs.

In an interview, Lewis, the former Harvard College dean, said institutional neutrality would require University leaders to be “personally restrained” — a philosophy Lewis said he has retained for years.

Harry R. Lewis '68 speaks during the 2015 commencement ceremony, when he was serving as Interim Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
Harry R. Lewis '68 speaks during the 2015 commencement ceremony, when he was serving as Interim Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. By Madeline R. Lear

“Your primary obligation now is not your own personal academic freedom — your professional academic freedom — it’s the welfare of the University,” Lewis said.

On the lapel of his tweed jacket, Lewis had clipped a pin bearing the American and Ukrainian flags joined together. Asked whether he would wear the pin today if he were still dean of the College, Lewis hesitated.

“Perhaps not,” he said.

‘Harvard is Not Neutral’

Though support for institutional neutrality has picked up among faculty, some say that in a tense, politicized moment for higher education — with Harvard staring down a lawsuit and congressional subpoenas — the University shouldn’t turn its back on debate.

Enos, the Government professor, said Harvard should avoid making statements not essential to its mission. But, he added, if the University — which maintains a robust lobbying arm in addition to its public institutional voice — pledged to “stay out of politics” entirely, it could not respond to political attacks on higher education. These, to Enos, represent the academy’s most pressing foe, and so going silent would “be a grave mistake.”

“The greatest threats to academic freedom do not come internally from a university,” Enos said. “They come externally from people like government actors, and — maybe even more recently — billionaires that can put their thumb on the economic and social scales at a place like Harvard.”

Enos specifically took aim at the House Committee on Education and the Workforce’s investigation into Harvard, which he called “a sign of rising authoritarianism in the United States.”

“If you believe in free inquiry and academic freedom, what you see coming from Congress right now should be a five-alarm fire,” Enos said.

Though an institutional neutrality policy might draw stricter lines around Harvard’s advocacy, it could also leave it largely untouched. Existing policies at other universities typically allow schools to comment on issues that affect their mission or interests.

And it’s not clear how firmly institutional neutrality would restrict Harvard’s behind-the-scenes politicking: UChicago, like Harvard, spends six figures annually on its lobbying in Washington.

While amenable to the principles of institutional neutrality, Thomas — the Classics professor — expressed concerns that a neutrality policy could be used to further what he called an “unjust status quo.”

“Protest tends to be protest against the status quo,” he said, suggesting that adopting institutional neutrality may allow Harvard to avoid responding to the critiques of its dissenters.

In the case of UChicago, for instance, university leaders have pointed to the school’s guidelines as a reason for resisting calls for divestment: from South Africa to protest apartheid, from Sudan to protest ethnic violence in Darfur, and from fossil fuel companies to protest climate change.

In 2016, UChicago cited its institutional neutrality policy in a statement rebuffing demands to divest from companies doing business in Israel — demands recently echoed by Harvard students.

Salma Abu Ayyash, a preceptor at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, wrote in an email that she felt Harvard’s statements on the war have been biased and callous “considering the level of carnage in Gaza.” But, she wrote, silence from the University would serve only to conceal its administrators’ stances.

“I think I would rather have them speak up, even if on the wrong side of history, such as their current cowardly myopic stand on Gaza today,” wrote Abu Ayyash, who is Palestinian. “I am for disruption of academia, and against a sanitized process that allows our students to disengage from issues that they are implicated in, as taxpayers, and citizens of the world.”

Swain, the University spokesperson, declined to comment on Abu Ayyash’s criticisms.

Johnson, the History professor, wrote in her email that she would support a “‘no hot takes’ policy.” But, she wrote, genuine “neutrality” would be a fiction at Harvard — an entity whose very existence, she felt, rests on implicit judgments about the institutions and social fabric that surround it.

“Harvard is not neutral about capitalism: it requires a stable and growing economy to fund our work and it invests heavily in the stock market, which implies a literal investment in certain outcomes over others,” Johnson wrote. “Harvard is not neutral about democracy. The freedoms we (faculty, students, staff) cherish depend on it.”

“Our university does not exist outside of history or outside of politics,” she added. “We cannot pretend that it does.”

—Staff writer Tilly R. Robinson can be reached at Follow her on X @tillyrobin.

—Staff writer Neil H. Shah can be reached at Follow him on X @neilhshah15.

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