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Editorials

Harvard Must Learn Its Lesson. Institutional Neutrality Is Step One.

By Natalie Y. Zhang
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

After months caught in the culture wars, Harvard is set to consider whether it’s time to get out of the game.

Interim Harvard President Alan M. Garber ’76 is poised to announce a working group to consider whether Harvard should adopt a policy of institutional neutrality, under which it would avoid taking positions on social and political issues.

As an editorial board that has criticized the University for failing to make these statements more than perhaps any other entity, we mean it when we now say: It is time for Harvard to turn off the megaphone.

There is no better lesson in the value of neutrality than being dragged into the political arena. As its crisis of credibility deepens, it is imperative — for the University, for higher education, and for the nation itself — that Harvard do what it can to shield itself from reproach.

While we may endorse some of the principles espoused in Harvard’s public statements, we find it hard to see how they do anyone good. Message-tested corporate language issuing from the depths of the institution neither effects change nor offers emotional comfort.

So what do Harvard’s public pronouncements do? Lately, cause it a whole lot of grief.

We cannot forget: Harvard’s long institutional nightmare began with statements that were lambasted for failing to hit the right note. By taking public stances on uncontroversial issues — as it did when Russia invaded Ukraine — Harvard set a precedent that was turned against it again and again in the months following Oct. 7.

By removing the expectation to take just-so stances that placate campus groups with competing (often, irreconcilable) positions, the University can avoid sparking a similar conflagration in the future.

Notably, the University of Chicago, the most well-known school to adopt a policy of institutional neutrality, has fared far better than many peer institutions as protests over the war between Israel and Hamas have wracked college campuses.

With trust in higher education low and falling, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Nothing less than Harvard’s ability to inform the world hangs in the balance. As the University looks to respond, there is perhaps no first step more obvious than a formal policy against the issuance of public statements.

When social and political issues affect students personally, as with aggressive doxxing or harmful antisemitism, the University does have an obligation to offer them concrete support — but that’s all. No more, no less.

The question of neutrality becomes murkier when one turns to corporate action — hiring, admissions, investments, and the like.

In such domains, the University cannot remain neutral. Harvard’s existing posture assumes value judgements just as much as would a new one. Whether the University invests in fossil fuels or not, it is inescapably making an active choice to invest in something.

Still, we acknowledge that there may be some kinds of corporate action where more neutrality would be advisable, for example, in the way the University regulates free speech. We look forward to reading the working group’s thoughts on such matters.

As we wrote when University President Claudine Gay resigned, Harvard must learn the lessons of her troubled tenure. Since Oct. 7, the University has been lambasted and discredited. Its students have been doxxed and harassed. Its leaders have been dragged before Congress and, now, subpoenaed.

Pandora’s box must be closed. Harvard is a university, not a country — it's high time it act more like one.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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