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Harvard FAS Dean Hoekstra Distances Herself from Social Science Dean’s Calls for Faculty Speech Limits

Hoekstra's comments come after Dean of Social Science Lawrence D. Bobo suggested last month that there should be sanctionable
Hoekstra's comments come after Dean of Social Science Lawrence D. Bobo suggested last month that there should be sanctionable By Julian J. Giordano
By Tilly R. Robinson and Neil H. Shah, Crimson Staff Writers

Updated July 1, 2024, at 11:52 p.m.

Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Hopi E. Hoekstra said on Monday that she would not sanction faculty members who criticize Harvard’s administration, forcefully distancing herself from an op-ed written by one of her own top deans.

Hoekstra’s comments come after Dean of Social Science Lawrence D. Bobo suggested last month that there should be “sanctionable limits” on faculty speech. Bobo’s op-ed called out high-profile professors who criticized Harvard’s administration amid its most tumultuous period in decades.

Bobo immediately drew criticism from Harvard faculty and free speech advocates, who said limiting faculty speech would constitute a violation of academic freedom and have a chilling effect on dissent. The op-ed backfired on a national scale, garnering headlines and leading prominent Harvard faculty to demand Hoekstra publicly distance herself from Bobo’s arguments.

After two weeks, Hoekstra relented.

“In recent days, I’ve heard from a number of you who have expressed sincere concerns about whether FAS faculty can be sanctioned for criticizing the institution or its leadership,” Hoekstra wrote in a Monday email to FAS faculty members. “My unequivocal answer is no.”

Bobo argued in his June 15 op-ed that faculty should face penalties for speech that he described as breaching professional conduct, such as sharply criticizing the University in a way that “incite[s] external actors” or encouraging students to participate in protests that violate Harvard policy.

Jeffrey S. Flier, co-president of the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard, wrote in a rebuttal published in the Atlantic that “Bobo didn’t identify the nature of the sanctions he had in mind.”

“But any sanction for the speech he referenced would be a frontal assault on academic freedom,” he added.

The Wall Street Journal’s Editorial Board went so far as to dub Bobo “Harvard’s Dean of Speech Sanctions,” writing that his “position as a Harvard dean is especially problematic” since the role gives him power over the faculty he criticized.

Bobo had previously tried to allay concerns that he would use his office to limit speech in a June 25 email to faculty members in the Social Sciences division that he leads.

“In my role as dean, I am bound by our policies and governance structures,” Bobo wrote. “I am not empowered to, nor would I seek to, act outside of those policies or structures on issues of speech.”

Though his email struck a conciliatory tone, Bobo didn’t back off from his op-ed. But he did not explicitly address his call for sanctions, instead shifting focus to ideas of responsibility to the University.

“In a year in which we saw arguably unprecedented focus on Harvard by media, government, and others outside our university community, I asked the question of how we should think about the institutional impacts of what we, as faculty, say about it,” he wrote.

In her email to faculty, Hoekstra invoked the FAS’ Free Speech Guidelines and the University Resolution on Rights and Responsibilities, documents that govern Harvard’s response to protests and controversial speech — and affirm the value of free expression.

“Constructively engaging with criticism makes our community wiser and stronger and, when appropriate, informs changes to policy,” Hoekstra wrote. “Such engagement advances our shared mission of education, research, and service.”

—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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