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Editorials

Keep Politics Out of the Houses

By Addison Y. Liu
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.

These days — as the U.S. Congress, the Department of Education, and multiple federal lawsuits have all set their eyes on Harvard — the University is no stranger to controversy.

This time, the culprit isn’t a shadowy administrative body, nor a top bureaucrat – it’s Lowell House, one of Harvard’s 12 residential homes.

Last week, the Lowell House Faculty Deans and the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Ethics both withdrew their sponsorship from a panel on Islamophobia and antisemitism, after the event drew fierce public backlash.

Critics cited the panel’s lack of kosher food, despite catering to Halal-observant Muslim students; past remarks from the panel’s moderator and speakers; and the ideological makeup of the panel, which contained no publicly unambiguously Zionist panelists, yet both a pro-Palestinian speaker and moderator.

We can understand the frustration. In an era where discourse has become increasingly fractured across campus groups, the proposed panel was politically slanted with barely a patina of viewpoint diversity.

But the focus on the panel’s ideological slant misses the point. The real problem with the event was Lowell’s bizarre institutional support of it.

Harvard’s residential houses are a unique quirk of our University and exist for an important singular purpose: to foster a supportive smaller sub-Harvard community for their inhabitants. Social events accomplish this goal. Politicized ones do not.

To be clear, Harvard’s Houses should continue offering their communal spaces to students and groups seeking to host events — no matter how frustratingly divisive they may be — since doing so is valuable for the paramount exchange of ideas on college campuses. But lending their financial support and institutional backing to political events is not only an inappropriate use of resources — it is completely orthogonal to their mission.

Lowell was wise to withdraw their support from the event. What happens tomorrow when another group requests the House’s institutional support for a panel that is even more controversial? Is Lowell truly prepared to sponsor every event that students suggest? If they aren’t, how do they approach the impossible calculus of determining which events earn the House’s official stamp of approval? Who gets to decide what political identity Lowell will assume?

Rather than wading into the political tempest, residential houses and student resource centers need to adopt institutional neutrality stances for political issues outside their purview — just like the University must writ large. Doing so will protect our school’s ability to serve as a fair, open, and careful forum for campus discussion.

Importantly, this strong form of neutrality need not extend to academic organizations like the Safra Center, the other initial cosponsor of the Lowell event: Discussions of politically contentious issues squarely belong in academic centers and these forums must not be neutered by a commitment to neutrality.

As the culture wars rage, and universities find themselves reevaluating their speech and academic freedom policies, the twin priorities of enabling discussion and remaining neutral are vital. Our campus benefits from open discourse, and any public discussion can result in greater understanding, especially in trying times when factionalism appears rampant.

But more expression need not be synonymous with a House’s seal of approval. Harvard has thousands of undergraduates; it would be impossible to fit them into just 12 political homes.

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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