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Op Eds

Introducing Harvard’s Values Statement

By Julian J. Giordano
By Danielle Allen, Contributing Opinion Writer
Danielle Allen is the James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University and Director of the Allen Lab for Democracy Renovation.

In late Sept., I joined philosopher Edward J. Hall for a discussion about free speech on campus, under the auspices of the Council for Academic Freedom at Harvard. I was not at the time a member of the Council but joined later in the fall (so scintillating was Ned’s conversation!).

Little did we know, as we chatted genially in Boylston Hall that autumn afternoon, that these very questions would soon convulse Harvard’s campus.

At the time of our panel, I was concerned that our thinking about academic freedom and free speech had become quite muddled. Now as we approach the end of the academic year, I worry that, for all the ferment, our thinking hasn’t made much progress.

So many terms are floating around: “academic freedom,” “free speech,” “civil discourse,” “open inquiry.”

I keep hearing from students that they are confused.

In a series of five pieces for The Crimson, I will do my best to name and clarify some of the key concepts needed for the pursuit of high caliber academic and intellectual work at Harvard and on any campus dedicated to open inquiry.

I believe these distinctions are necessary to address our challenges more effectively, and have important policy implications.

Further, appropriate distinctions can help us make sense of — and crystallize our understanding of — the University’s values statement.

Wait, what? A University values statement? You may be wondering if I’m referencing the University’s Statement on Rights and Responsibilities or the College’s mission articulation.

But in reality, Harvard has a little-known enumeration of its University-wide values.

Few people know this. In 2016, when the 55 of us — students, staff, and faculty — who served on the Inclusion and Belonging Task Force began our work, we were surprised to learn that a values statement was drafted and passed during the administration of former Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers in 2002.

As I remember it, we learned that there was one copy of the statement displayed on a poster in the basement of Massachusetts Hall. As best as we could tell, that was the only place where the statement then existed. Undaunted, we nonetheless proceeded to embrace the idea that a values statement could help a university orient its sense of purpose and strengthen its work.

We lightly revised the Summers' era statement, received approval for the updated version from then-President Drew Gilpin Faust, and recommended that it be broadly disseminated in our task force’s 2018 report.

But, as with the 2002 declaration, this statement has languished in a few remote corners of campus websites, essentially unknown and unfindable.

So let me introduce you to the Harvard University Statement of Values, the stepchild of our campus policies.

It begins:

“Harvard University aspires to provide education and scholarship of the highest quality — to advance the frontiers of knowledge; to equip students, staff, and faculty and academic personnel for fulfilling experiences of life, work, and inclusive leadership in a complex world; and to provide all members of our diverse community with opportunities for growth.”

The Statement continues to argue that achieving these goals requires affirming five values on campus: “respect for the rights, differences, and dignity of others”; “honesty and integrity in all dealings”; “conscientious pursuit of excellence in our work”; “accountability for actions and conduct in the community”; and “responsibility for the bonds and bridges that enable all to grow with and learn from one another.”

The events of this year have put pressure on these values and have also shown us ways in which they are perhaps not strong enough. In addition to respect, people need safety from attacks — both internal and external.

Further, despite the statement’s preamble, it doesn’t name what should be our primary, guiding value: commitment to academic and intellectual inquiry, guided by the highest standards of truth-seeking.

In the pieces that follow, I will describe the principles needed to support this open inquiry. I’ll discuss several key distinctions: distinctions between academic freedom and free speech, between the permissible and the impermissible, between the good and the bad, between the role of the enforcer and of the pastoral teacher, and among our professional, personal, and civic roles.

The University’s value statement can help guide our commitment to fostering open inquiry by bearing these distinctions in mind.

Perhaps it’s time to update our University’s values statement once more. Perhaps this time the first value should be a steadfast commitment to academic inquiry; the rest of the tenets appropriately support this overarching purpose. And perhaps this time, we could make sure the statement is at last broadly shared.

Why not? Third time’s the charm.

Danielle Allen is the James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University and director of the Allen Lab for Democracy Renovation.

This piece is the first installment in a series that will identify and assess the difficult ethical questions surfaced by Harvard’s recent leadership crisis.

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