The Fight Over DEI Arrives at Harvard

By Io Y. Gilman, Crimson Staff Writer
By Xinyi (Christine) Zhang

In the opening minutes of the Dec. 5 congressional hearing on antisemitism, House Committee on Education and the Workforce Chairwoman Virginia Foxx addressed Harvard President Claudine Gay, University of Pennsylvania President Elizabeth Magill, and MIT President Sally A. Kornbluth: “Do you have the courage to truly confront and condemn the ideology driving antisemitism, or will you offer weak, blame-shifting excuses and yet another responsibility-dodging task force?” Foxx asked, peering down at them.

The ideology, Foxx explained, is “diversity and inclusion.” As Foxx saw it, the embrace of these ideals on university campuses had resulted in antisemitism. “Institutional antisemitism and hate are among the poison fruits of your institution’s cultures,” she told the presidents, adding that this ideology could be seen at work in classes like DP 385M: Race and Racism in the Making of the United States as a Global Power, taught by Harvard Kennedy School professor Khalil G. Muhammad.

Watching the hearing from home on TV, Muhammad’s mouth dropped to the ground. “This is not possible, this doesn’t make any sense,” he was thinking. “She doesn’t know what I actually teach.”

The class, required for all Master in Public Policy students, teaches students about race and racism in American history and racial hierarchies in America today.

Muhammad spent the next five and a half hours listening closely to the hearing, trying to figure out: Why had a hearing about antisemitism on campus turned into a discussion of universities’s diversity and inclusion work?

But Harvard’s diversity, equity, and inclusion work would, indeed, come under attack. Over the next few weeks, Gay was held up by right wing activists as a representative of all that was wrong with diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts on campus. After her resignation in January, conservative activist Christopher F. Rufo tweeted, “Today, we celebrate victory. Tomorrow, we get back to the fight. We must not stop until we have abolished DEI ideology from every institution in America.”

These attacks on DEI at Harvard come amidst a national effort by conservatives to stamp out this work entirely, with many Republican-controlled states putting forward legislation to restrict DEI efforts.

But right wing activists are not the only ones who think that these programs may need reform. Many people within Harvard believe the University should adopt a broader understanding of diversity and put in place stronger protections for free expression.

The fight over DEI has arrived at Harvard, and what’s at stake is not merely administrative offices. What’s at stake are the values symbolized by DEI and the campus culture they create.

Will the administration stand by its current efforts, or will it change course? How the University responds will shape Harvard for years to come.

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

Imposing Ideology

So how did a geopolitical event in the Middle East eventually result in a raging debate about Harvard’s diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts?

In an open letter to Gay published on the platform X on Nov. 4, Bill Ackman ’88, a billionaire who would become a prominent voice calling for Gay’s resignation, provided this line of reasoning: Harvard’s diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts do not include Jewish students, and this has created a campus culture where antisemitism is not taken seriously.

Ackman points to the website of Harvard’s Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Office as evidence. According to the site, the OEDIB hopes each person can bring their “whole self” to campus regardless of “background, culture, experiences, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, gender expression, race, ethnicity, age, ability, political views, veteran status.”

But the next paragraph says, “We actively seek and welcome people of color, women, persons with disabilities, people who identify as LGBTQIA, and those who are at the intersections of these identities, from across the spectrum of disciplines and methods to join us.” Religious identities, among others, are absent from that list.

As criticism of Harvard’s handling of campus antisemitism swelled and arguments connecting antisemitism to DEI gained purchase, Rufo and other conservative activists saw a chance to pounce: rather than just criticize the OEDIB for failing to properly support Jewish affiliates, they could tear DEI down completely.

“It provided this political opportunity for those of us who have been writing and speaking about this for years to start mobilizing the new constituency against some of these ideologies,” Rufo says.

Since 2020, Rufo has been working to get rid of what he calls “Critical Race Theory” — an ideology defined by correcting unconscious racial bias and white privilege, as Rufo explains it. These efforts emerged as part of the backlash to what some on the right decried as “wokeness” following the murder of George Floyd in 2020.

On Sept. 1, 2020, Rufo appeared on Fox News’s “Tucker Carlson Show” arguing that diversity trainings on white privilege and systemic racism in America discriminated against white people, calling for Trump to abolish these trainings in the federal government.

“Conservatives need to wake up. This is an existential crisis to the United States,” he told Carlson.

Trump was watching. The next day Rufo flew to the White House to help fine tune the wording of the “Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping” executive order. The order, signed by Trump a few weeks later, dismissed the idea that the U.S. could be systemically racist and banned the promotion of “this destructive ideology” in the federal government.

After Trump’s executive order, Rufo tweeted that it was the “first successful counterattack against critical race theory in American history.” But he wasn’t done: “Tonight, we celebrate; tomorrow, back to war.”

Over the next few years Rufo and other conservatives pushed efforts to ban CRT in K-12 education and the corporate world. And then their attention landed on universities.

On Jan. 18, 2023, the Manhattan Institute published model legislation on combating university DEI programs, which they saw as the bureaucratic expression of CRT. Building on work by the Martin Center and Goldwater Institute, the legislation called for abolishing DEI offices and firing their workers, ending mandatory diversity training, forbidding the use of diversity statements for hiring and promotions, and banning universities from using race, sex, ethnicity, or national origins for admissions or hiring.

States quickly picked up on this legislation. As of Feb. 23, 76 bills have been introduced to 26 state legislatures and Congress. Sixteen are either law or have final legislative approval, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Some anti-DEI activists associated with the Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank, have a larger goal. They hope their work will help dismantle anti-discrimination laws as a whole and promote a certain vision of America, as emails acquired by the New York Times reveal.

Scott Yenor, the leader of the Institute’s anti-DEI push, said that his views aligned with the idea that “our sexual culture will not be healed until we once again agree that homosexuality belongs in the closet and that a healthy society requires patriarchy.”

In another email exchange with the Claremont Institute organizers, Manhattan Institute writer Heather Mac Donald wrote about the Black wife of the Claremont Institute’s president: “Hilarious. the usual pet black phenomenon. We are all just SO grateful if there is a black who does not overtly hate us.”

Mac Donald and the Manhattan Institute declined the New York Times’ request for comment. The Claremont Institute sent a statement to them reaffirming its commitment to fighting against DEI. “The ideology from which it flows conflicts with America’s Founding principles, constitutional government and equality under the law,” they wrote.

As conservative activists promoted policies banning DEI, Harvard’s diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts continued unaffected. Nestled in liberal Massachusetts, the University was removed from the outrage — until Foxx accused these programs of causing antisemitism on Harvard’s campus in the congressional hearing.

To capitalize on the moment, Rufo positioned Gay as the ultimate representation of DEI on campus. He proceeded to write a Substack post detailing the DEI efforts she had been involved with as Faculty of Arts and Sciences dean.

Then he dropped the allegations of plagiarism against Gay.

To Rufo, this was “a perfect dilemma”: As he saw it, the Harvard Corporation — the University’s highest governing body — either had to choose DEI, as represented by Claudine Gay, or the truth, its ostensible mission.

Rufo is surprised Gay’s presidency lasted as long as it did. “If we’re honest everyone knows that she was not fired sooner because of diversity considerations,” he says. He quotes from an interview he did with Carol Swain, one of the writers Gay allegedly plagiarized, where she said, “a white male would probably already be gone.”

While Rufo is glad Gay is gone, he’s still far from finished. He won’t be, he says, until Harvard abolishes the OEDIB, fires all its administrators, and restores “a policy of colorblind equality.”

And that’s just the first step in his master plan for academia. Ultimately, he wants to see higher education remade with a conservative elite in control rather than a liberal one. “Any institutional authority aiming only for neutrality will immediately be captured by a faction more committed to imposing ideology,” he argues in his essay “New Right Activism.” “We must recruit, recapture, and replace existing leadership. We must produce knowledge and culture at a sufficient scale and standard to shift the balance of ideological power.”

“No institution can be neutral,” he writes.

Bad Faith, Bad Politics

“Are we to pretend that the legislation against teaching about slavery in something like two dozen states now has nothing to do with the charade that’s playing out in terms of these attacks at Harvard?” Muhammad says when asked about the right wing campaign against Harvard’s diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. “I hope we’re smarter than that. I certainly know I am.”

Since 2021, over 300 bills have been introduced to state legislatures to limit what can be taught in K-12 education. Over 190 of these bills prohibit certain topics related to race from being taught, while some others simply ban “divisive concepts.”

“We support teaching accurate, real history and aspire to our nation’s highest ideals of liberty and equality—for everyone,” Rufo wrote in an emailed statement.

Muhammad emphasizes that teaching about race and racism is important for understanding contemporary America.

“The actual constitution and the politics of our nation are indelibly shaped by this history. So no matter what one might think that students make of this information, the fact that we are criminalizing the actual teaching of our history is a fascist move,” he says. “It’s not acceptable.”

Muhammad thinks it’s ridiculous to allow these right wing activists to help decide anything about Harvard’s DEI efforts, calling them “people of bad faith, of bad politics.”

Muahmmad points out that many Republicans have aligned themselves with white supremacists and neo-Nazis in the past. For instance, he says, Rep. Elise M. Stefanik ’06 (R-N.Y.) — who played a prominent role in questioning the university presidents during the Dec. 5 congressional hearing — has run antisemitic campaign advertisements. Specifically, the advertisements echoed the language of replacement theory, a belief that elites, particularly Jews, want to replace white Americans with immigrants.

Stefanik declined to comment for this article.

Muhammad also points to Republicans’ vilification of George Soros, a Jewish billionaire who donates to Democratic causes, a vilification that often plays on antisemitic tropes.

Many conservatives have defended their remarks, saying it is valid criticism of a public figure.

As Muhammad sees it, the conservatives attacking DEI don’t actually care about antisemitism — they’re just capitalizing off a “political opportunity,” as Rufo phrased it.

“This is obviously false,” Rufo wrote in the emailed statement. “Those of us who support colorblind equality have swiftly condemned Hamas and all terror.”

Kennedy School professor Khalil G. Muhammad teaches his course, "Race and Racism in the Making of the United States as a Global Power."
Kennedy School professor Khalil G. Muhammad teaches his course, "Race and Racism in the Making of the United States as a Global Power." By Nicholas T. Jacobsson

No matter how illegitimate, Muhammad worries the attacks will curtail teaching of social justice issues, especially for people who don’t have the protections of tenure.

“People are going to censor themselves, people are going to pull back and not do their jobs with the enthusiasm and sense of inclusion that they had before,” Muhammad says. “It would be a crying shame if that were to happen. I suspect it’s already happened.”

LaChaun Banks says she feels “personally” threatened by these attacks, which have made her worry about her job. Banks teaches a class called “Racial Equity and Economic Development” for the Extension School’s Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Leadership Graduate Certificate, where students “adopt a city,” learn about racial inequities in that city, and develop policies to address them.

“I wonder, will my class always be able to be offered at Harvard Extension School?” she says.

Muhammad urges the University to release a written statement in support of people doing work related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Without a statement, Muhammad says, “we are led to believe that the University may in fact believe some of the criticisms and the messages that we’re receiving.”

In a letter to interim President Alan M. Garber ’76 and Harvard’s governing boards, The Black Alumnae of Harvard Equity Initiative called for the university to affirm the importance of DEI on campus. “As a global academic leader, Harvard is in the unique position to lead and exemplify the urgent need to protect and rally for diversity, inclusion, and equity for all,” the group wrote.

The University has yet to make any public comment on its equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging efforts in light of the current criticism.

‘I Felt Safe and Supported’

So what are these embattled programs actually doing?

Two of the biggest initiatives at the Office for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging are the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Lecture, an annual lecture honoring individuals who “embody the spirit of Dr. King’s vision of servant leadership,” and The Culture Lab, which gives grants ranging from $200 to $15,000 to promising projects working on issues of inclusion and belonging. Funded projects range from ones working on making labs more accessible to students with disabilities, to initiatives addressing gender disparities in Computer Science.

The Inclusive Anatomical Representation program is also funded by the Culture Lab. Six medical students and three faculty members started the program in 2019 after students raised concerns that almost all of the bodies they studied in their textbooks were thin young white men.

“If you don’t have the images then you don’t learn how to take care of a body that has a different size or shape,” says Harvard Medical School instructor Martha E. Katz, one of the three original faculty members involved with the program. For instance, if you only learn to diagnose a certain kind of rash on someone with pale skin, you might struggle to make that diagnosis on someone with darker skin where the rash appears differently.

To address this problem, the project is working with doctors across the world to develop a database containing more diverse images. The group has also commissioned an artist to draw an image of a postmenopausal female body with darker skin tone and sagging breasts. They hope to commission more illustrations soon.

Beyond the central University office, each of Harvard’s schools has its own inclusion and belonging office along with many smaller committees and affinity spaces. For instance, the College’s office is split into three centers — the Office of BGLTQ Student Life, the Women’s Center, and the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations.

One program supported by the Foundation is First Year Retreat Experience, a student-led pre-orientation program that provides incoming first generation, low-income, and underrepresented students with a chance to learn about resources at Harvard and find community.

Cindy H. Phan ’24 felt daunted coming into Harvard, so she decided to participate in FYRE. Neither of her parents went to college, and since they were immigrants from Vietnam, they had no experience with the U.S. education system. But in FYRE, Phan found a supportive community that “made a very, very big difference” in her freshman year.

“I struggled a lot my first year, but I would have struggled a lot more if not for FYRE,” she says.

Phan decided to return as a leader, eventually co-chairing FYRE the summer before her junior year. She recalls speaking to a student’s mother in Vietnamese during move-in, reassuring her she would look after her daughter.

“Later when I bumped into her, she cried and she said thank you for speaking to my mom in Vietnamese, I know that made her feel very, very safe,” Phan says.

Phan also mentions that a student wrote her and her co-chair an email saying, “FYRE is the first place where I felt safe and supported.”

‘A Chance to Course-Correct’

But all the diversity, equity, and inclusion work on campus has not stopped students from filing a civil rights complaint alleging that Harvard failed to protect Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim students and supporters of Palestinian rights from discrimination and harassment, nor from suing Harvard, alleging a “severe and pervasive” antisemitism issue on campus.

“Reports of antisemitic and Islamophobic acts on our campus have grown, and the sense of belonging among these groups has been undermined,” Garber wrote while announcing task forces on antisemitism and Islamophobia.

So why have Harvard’s inclusion and belonging efforts failed to support these students?

Government professor Danielle S. Allen thinks that it’s partially because the OEDIB’s efforts didn’t “make space for religious identity,” as she wrote in a Dec. 10 Washington Post op-ed titled “We’ve lost our way on campus. Here’s how we can find our way back.”

Why that happened, Allen suggests, has to do with how inclusion and belonging efforts developed at Harvard.

From 2016-2018, Allen co-chaired the Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging — which had been charged in 2016 by then-University President Drew Gilpin Faust with making recommendations on how to make Harvard more inclusive.

“For nearly 400 years, Harvard has steadily — though often painfully slowly — opened its doors, as it has welcomed groups previously excluded from its faculty, staff, and student body,” Faust wrote at the time. “We must also work affirmatively and collectively to advance a culture of belonging.”

In March 2018, the taskforce concluded in their final report that future inclusion and belonging efforts should work toward “inclusive excellence” — ensuring that everyone at Harvard could be their best self.

The committee had a broad understanding of what diversity could entail. “Our Task Force discussed many dimensions of diversity — race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, religion and spiritual experience, political viewpoint, socioeconomic and immigration status, geographic origins and language, disability, veteran status, and discipline and scholarly methodology,” the report declares.

But this broad understanding of diversity failed to be implemented.

“Older paradigms that focused only on some groups as marginalized, as opposed to all groups as sources of potential and perspective, came back to the fore,” Allen wrote.

But more fundamentally, after the 2020 murder of George Floyd, a different set of ideas than those of the 2018 task force came to dominate the work of diversity and inclusion across the country.

Most notably, Ibram X. Kendi’s formulation of antiracism took hold. In June 2020, his book “How to Be an Antiracist” shot to the top of bestseller lists, eventually selling a million copies. In it, Kendi argues that racism is not merely a problem of discrimination. Rather, racism is primarily an issue of racist ideas and policies that create unequal outcomes for people of different races. For instance, Black Americans are far more likely to be houseless than white Americans.

Unless people take active, antiracist action to fight against these racist policies and ideas, Kendi argues, they will continue to produce inequitable results. So, you are either actively working against racism as an anti-racist, or you are abetting racism and are racist. “There is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist,’” Kendi writes, adding that “racist” and “antiracist” are not fixed identities and instead depend on what an individual is doing at a given moment.

Kendi’s ideas quickly made their way onto campus. In the fall of 2020, Kendi became a Radcliffe Fellow for the coming school year.

By the end of 2020, Kendi’s ideas were officially integrated into Harvard’s inclusion work. They could be found in a glossary of “foundational concepts” created by the Office for Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging. Echoing his book, the glossary defines “Non-racist” as a “non term,” an idea “created by whites to deny responsibility for systemic racism.” The definition adds: “Silence is consent.”

The glossary also cites the work of Robin DiAngelo, whose work also rose to prominence in the summer of 2020. In her book “White Fragility,” she argues that many white people get defensive when asked to think about race and their privilege and calls for white people to recognize that racism is not just limited to active discrimination.

“I think that the arguments of his book are problematic,” Allen says of “How to Be an Antiracist.” “They certainly put accusation at the center of the work of being against racism.”

For instance, Kendi writes, “What other people call racial microaggressions I call racist abuse. And I call the zero-tolerance policies holding these abusers accountable what they are: antiracist.”

Allen thinks this approach is counterproductive. “It’s very clear from educational research, that if you’re trying to build a positive culture or build positive change, the best thing to do is to activate people’s assets, not to try to move from deficits,” she says.

“I think there’s just a really fundamental change that is needed to move away from frameworks of accusation,” Allen adds, criticizing the “shaming culture” that’s been embraced on campus since 2020.

“This is a distortion of my book,” Kendi wrote in an emailed statement. “My book on being antiracist describes what we should aspire to be, and how we each contribute to creating an equitable and just society for all. That is an asset framing that puts our ability to transform ourselves to transform society at the center.” He added that because he does not treat being racist or antiracist as a fixed category, his book “challenges the normal accusatory framing that fixes and identifies someone as a racist.”

Danielle Allen is a professor of political philosophy, ethics, and public policy.
Danielle Allen is a professor of political philosophy, ethics, and public policy. By Sophia C. Scott

Instead, Allen hopes Harvard can use the ideal of inclusive excellence from the 2018 report to continue its inclusion and belonging work. In her op-ed, she writes that she’s proud of the work that the task force did.

“While we acknowledged historical patterns in our report, we did not dwell on the theme of historical injustices,” she wrote in the op-ed. “We did not see the challenge in front of us as ‘white supremacy’; we never used a vocabulary of that kind. Our faces were set to the future.”

Allen also criticizes current inclusion and belonging efforts on campus for making equity one of their central concepts. In October 2021, the Office for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging was renamed to include equity, becoming the Office for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging. “This change more accurately reflects the focus of University leadership and this team,” wrote Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Sherri A. Charleston in an announcement at the time.

As Allen sees it, the issue with the modern concept of equity is that it’s based on disparities. “Equity is necessarily comparative and in a certain sense necessarily puts groups in competition with one another,” she wrote in an email.

In contrast, inclusive excellence — Allen’s preferred framework — doesn’t focus on groups and the differences between them. Instead it focuses on individuals. “Its goal was not fundamentally comparative but about providing a foundation of flourishing for all students, regardless of what features of identity they brought to campus with them,” she wrote.

Allen hopes the present controversies will make Harvard reevaluate its inclusion and belonging efforts. “I hope this moment gives all of us — our universities, yes, but also Congress, the media and so many other of our vital institutions and spheres of discourse — a chance to course-correct,” she wrote in the op-ed.

Sociology professor Frank Dobbin, who studies the effectiveness of diversity and inclusion programs and served on a committee for implementing the 2018 report, does not feel that the ideas behind inclusion and belonging efforts have changed substantially since 2018.

“The ideas about what needs to be done in this space haven’t changed a whole lot since the early 1960s,” he says. He points to the 1961 executive order from John F. Kennedy ’40, which required federal contractors to take “affirmative action” to ensure that people of all races were treated “without regard” to their race.

“In the language in that order, there was the recognition that you have to fight racism,” Dobbin says. While at the times the language has been “less striving,” he says, ultimately the principle of needing to account for past harms has been the same.

Muhammad, who served on the implementation committee alongside Dobbin, thinks that antiracism remains a useful concept.

“It has been helpful in clarifying what we’re solving for,” he says. If racism is a systemic problem rather than an issue with discriminatory individuals, then the solutions needed are different, he explains. While efforts to address individual racist behavior “got us a little bit down the road,” they ultimately don’t address the actual causes of inequality.

Yet Muhammad clarifies there are many formulations of anti-racism beyond Kendi’s. Personally, Muhammad says, he finds Kendi’s binary between being racist and antiracist “a little simplistic.”

“My research shows the same person can hold racist and antiracist ideas, can support racist and antiracist policies depending on the racial group, context, or issue, accounting for human complexity,” Kendi wrote in his statement.

Assaults on Common Sense

Allen isn’t alone in thinking changes are needed. Many others believe Harvard should reconsider — but not abandon — its inclusion and belonging programs.

In fact, many have quoted Allen’s op-ed in the weeks following its publication, specifically the sentence, “DEI bureaucracies have been responsible for numerous assaults on common sense.” Computer Science professor Boaz Barak quoted her in The Crimson and Harvard Law School professor Jeannie Suk Gersen quoted her in the New Yorker. Outside Harvard, she has also been quoted in the LA Times, CNN, and even by Rep. Kevin Kiley ’07 (R-Calif.).

Computer Science professor and former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 also brings up that sentence from Allen’s op-ed while discussing his view of why things have gone astray with equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging efforts. “You don’t have to be far out on the right in order to criticize it,” Lewis emphasizes.

Lewis has wanted Harvard to re-evaluate the effectiveness of its equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging programs since long before the events of Oct. 7 brought them to the national stage. He calls for taking a “fresh look at why these various programs existed, what ends they were meant to serve, and whether they were effectively serving them or not.”

He had hoped changes would be made this summer for two reasons. The first was the appointment of Claudine Gay to office. “Because she was a Black woman, it would have given her an opportunity to call for a general review and take a look at everything Harvard was doing in this area without being subjected to the knee-jerk antipathy that a white male would have encountered,” he says.

The second was the SFFA lawsuit, which he thinks created an opening for Harvard to reevaluate how to think about race on campus broadly, not just in admissions. But no reevaluation happened.

Former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 wants Harvard to re-evaluate the effectiveness of its equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging programs.
Former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 wants Harvard to re-evaluate the effectiveness of its equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging programs. By Cynthia Guo

Barak also feels some changes are due for inclusion and belonging. “People might be good intentioned, but they end up doing things in the name of inclusion that end up being completely, I think, over the top, and sometimes these things end up just being fodder for right wing activists,” he says.

“They give ammunition to people that would like to bring the whole enterprise down,” he adds.

Muhammad dismisses the idea that diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts could have gone too far at Harvard, particularly since University-wide efforts only started in the last six years.

“It’s certainly not how change happens at a very old conservative institution where things move slowly,” he says. “We’re just beginning this work. Baby steps is what I call it, or a toddler just learning how to walk.”

Freedoms of a University

In her Jan. 27 New Yorker essay “The Future of Academic Freedom,” HLS professor Jeannie Suk Gersen presents another issue with DEI’s effect on campus culture. The “seeping of D.E.I. programs into many aspects of university life,” she writes, has led to a troubling problem with free expression on campus.

She gives the example of University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax, who in March 2023 came under fire for saying that “on average, Blacks have lower cognitive ability than whites,” and that the country is “better off with fewer Asians,” among other statements.

Students at Penn called for her firing, saying that refusing to do so called into question Penn’s commitment to inclusion.

“Wax’s speech and presence at the School goes beyond the presence of someone with radical political views, extending into racism and outright bigotry,” Penn students wrote in a petition calling for the university to investigate her. “If her harmful words and actions are not cause for action, anything short of overt attacks could not be.”

Wax has denied making racist comments to her students.

To Gersen, calling for her firing threatened academic freedom on campus. “I wished she hadn’t said that, but I held my nose and defended her right not to be fired or otherwise punished, which many at Penn demanded,” she writes.

The tension between inclusion and free expression has fueled controversy at Harvard as well. Gersen brings up Carole Hooven, a former Human Evolutionary Biology lecturer. In a July 2021 appearance on Fox News, Hooven said medical schools should continue to use the words male and female to describe biological sex, adding that doctors can still respect people’s gender identities and pronouns while recognizing biological sex.

Soon after, a graduate student tweeted “As the Director of the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force for my dept @HarvardHEB, I am appalled and frustrated by the transphobic and harmful remarks made by a member of my dept.” In the ensuing months, Hooven faced backlash from her peers at Harvard — including graduate students who refused to TF her class. She eventually decided to quit.

Lewis, the former Dean of the College, feels that Harvard’s administration failed to adequately support Hooven’s right to express her views. “That should never happen again,” he says.

But beyond these high profile incidents, Lewis worries about everyday self-censorship. “My own particular concern is students being compelled by social pressure not to speak up at all rather than to use the wrong word in some way and get scolded,” he says, emphasizing that many of these students aren’t even conservative.

Gersen echoes his concerns about students self-censoring but says the problem extends to faculty, as well. According to her, faculty members worry about bringing up controversial topics in class because “university administrators might not distinguish between challenging discussions and discrimination or harassment.”

According to Harvard Law School professor Jeannie Suk Gersen, the “seeping of D.E.I. programs into many aspects of university life” has led to a troubling problem with free expression on campus.
According to Harvard Law School professor Jeannie Suk Gersen, the “seeping of D.E.I. programs into many aspects of university life” has led to a troubling problem with free expression on campus. By Lucy H. Vuong

In response to these mounting concerns about academic freedom on campus, in March 2023 more than 70 Harvard faculty members launched The Council on Academic Freedom, a group dedicated to upholding free inquiry, intellectual diversity, and civil discourse.

In an op-ed in the Boston Globe, Psychology professor Steven A. Pinker and Harvard Medical School professor Bertha K. Madras wrote that confidence in higher education was falling because universities like Harvard were “repressing differences of opinion.”

They cited the free speech rankings of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, which this year put Harvard last out of 248 schools.

“An exploding bureaucracy for policing harassment and discrimination has professional interests that are not necessarily aligned with the production and transmission of knowledge,” Pinker and Madras warned.

Gersen, alongside Lewis, Pinker, Jeffrey Flier, and Edward Hall all serve as co-Presidents of the Council. Currently over 170 faculty members are associated with the Council, including Allen and Barak.

In a statement titled “Freedoms of a University,” the Council argued that academic freedom is vital for the pursuit of knowledge. “Every member of the academic community should be free from fear of reprisal for positions they defend, questions they ask, or ideas they entertain,” they write. While thoughtful critique is welcome, they believe, attacks on character and institutional sanction are not.

How, then, should Harvard actually address the threat to freedom of expression?

Though it might be tempting to tamp down on speech given current controversies over protest slogans, antisemitism, and Islamophobia, Gersen writes, Harvard must instead dig in its heels. “The university needs to acknowledge that it has allowed a culture of censoriousness to develop, recommit itself to academic freedom and free speech, and rethink D.E.I. in a way that prizes the diversity of viewpoints,” she writes.

Allen agrees that viewpoint diversity is important — and points out that it was part of the 2018 Inclusion and Belonging framework. That task force took viewpoint diversity as a core issue to address on campus, according to W. Kent Haeffner ’18, former president of the Harvard Republican Club and a student representative on the council.

He notes, however, that such a focus went “against the grain” of most inclusion and belonging work at the time.

By 2021, the focus on viewpoint diversity disappeared. A Diversity, Inclusion, Belonging, and Equity toolkit released by Harvard Human Resources does not list viewpoint as one of its “Big 8” factors of diversity. (Veteran status, geographic origins and language, and discipline and scholarly methodology from the 2018 report also didn’t make the cut.)

One OEDIB effort — the “Community Dialogue Series” — did try to address political diversity by hosting discussions between people with opposing viewpoints, like the lawyers on either side of the Bush v. Gore case. But after hosting seven events, the initiative went dormant in May 2021.

Muhammad doesn’t think that the University needs to bring in more conservative viewpoints. While he thinks academic freedom is important and speaker events should not be disrupted, he argues that conservative viewpoints are less prevalent on campus because they are outmoded ways of thinking.

“If their ideas are good enough, I think that they’ll have more of a place on campus. If their ideas are not good enough, I don’t think they will gain primacy in terms of what gets taught and what students are learning. They have to compete just like the rest of us,” he says. Muhammad compares it to hiring a climate change denier in a science department just because Republicans are denying climate change.

Allen holds that a strong commitment to academic freedom is not at odds with pursuing inclusion efforts. If anything, the 2018 Inclusion and Belonging report explains, they are codependent.

“True academic freedom,” the report writes, “requires that all perspectives — including those sometimes marginalized or excluded from the center of the conversation — be fully considered and valued in the shared pursuit of knowledge.”

The Ocean Floor

Given that this has become politicized, I think in some ways the university can’t avoid looking at these programs,” Lewis says of Harvard’s equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging efforts.

At the very least, Harvard already seems to be reevaluating the importance of viewpoint diversity and free expression.

On Jan. 20, a new landing page appeared on Harvard’s website: “Dialogue Across Differences,” it read in big white letters. Scrolling down revealed a quotation attributed to HKS professor Julia Minson: “A pernicious problem confronting virtually all human societies is people’s unwillingness to engage with views and opinions they do not share.”

The homepage advertised a new initiative called “Harvard Dialogues,” a series of events “designed to enhance our ability to engage in respectful and robust debate,” according to a description.

In an email to the College at the start of this semester, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana wrote, “I have spoken to many faculty, students, and staff members who believe that speaking about controversial topics means risking being ostracized or ‘canceled’ for expressing opinions that do not conform with the perceived consensus on a topic and issue. This environment shuts down learning and growth. I know we can do better.”

On Jan. 23, after over two and half years with no events, the OEDIB hosted a new Community Dialogue Series event on “Being a Good Neighbor.”

Whether larger changes will be made to Harvard’s equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging efforts is unclear.

Muhammad would be fine with changes — as long as they expand their efforts. “I’m all fine for thinking about religious diversity and national origins diversity, which is what I’m told the university is interested in,” he says. “But that should not come at the expense of the work that we set out to do where we’re concerned about race and ethnicity, and gender-based, LGBTQ-based discrimination, or even disability.”

Despite Barak’s qualms about Harvard’s inclusion and belonging work, he emphasizes that it is broadly important, lauding the work that’s brought more women into CS. “It is very important not to, say, throw out the baby with the bathwater,” he says.

Allen also stresses that these efforts are extremely important. “The values of lowercase-i inclusion and lowercase-d diversity remain foundational to healthy democracy,” she wrote in her op-ed.

What’s necessary, Allen says, is to “recognize that there’s more than one paradigm in this space for how we do work around diversity and inclusion, or belonging, or equity.”

“It’s really important right now, I think, that we start to name the alternative paradigms, think about the strengths and weaknesses of each of them and reconsider the work we want to do,” she adds.


Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Andrew D. Ho has worked extensively on Harvard’s equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging efforts, having chaired a sub-committee of the 2018 task force and helped develop a university-wide survey on inclusion and belonging in 2019. He currently serves on an antiracism committee that helps teachers make classes more accessible.

Graduate School of Education professor Andrew D. Ho has worked extensively on Harvard’s equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging efforts.
Graduate School of Education professor Andrew D. Ho has worked extensively on Harvard’s equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging efforts. By Delano R. Franklin

Ho says at the moment, the attention on diversity and inclusion programs can feel “like a storm over the ocean.” With all the media attention and political maneuvering, the storm stirs up wild winds and big waves. Amid the cacophonous downpour, people have forgotten what these programs are actually about. “We have lost our definitions,” Ho says.

But when you get down to the floor of the ocean — where people are doing the work of the university — you can’t sense the storm raging above and you realize that the storm is not the full picture. Things are calm. A “hidden consensus” remains.

Ho hopes that despite the storm, people at the university still believe in the values of inclusion and belonging. He adds, “It’s insane not to be committed to an increased sense of belonging for students, faculty, and staff.”

— Io Y. Gilman was the Magazine Chair of the 150th Guard. She can be reached at