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Harvard’s Free Speech Fallacy

By Carine M. Hajjar, Crimson Opinion Writer
Carine M. Hajjar ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Government concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

Harvard University, one of the foremost academic institutions in the world, where only 3 percent of the faculty is conservative.

If academia is the collaborative pursuit of truth that relies on a diverse set of views, then ideological homogeneity of any kind is poison for a healthy academic community — not to mention detrimental to free speech.

It’s not shocking that I, a right-of-center student on campus, would be worried about freedom of speech given that I am in the ideological minority. Yet, embedded in my conservative leanings is the belief that private institutions, like Harvard, can technically do whatever they want. While I think this dire ideological imbalance among the Faculty of Arts and Sciences is detrimental to the quality of education, I will not protest if Harvard, as a private entity, wants it to stay this way. However, the real issue is that Harvard is at odds with the very free speech principles that it has defined for itself, and is doing little to address these infractions.

Harvard, surprisingly, has formal guidelines for free speech. I didn’t even know these existed — upon asking my friends whether they’d heard about the guidelines, each one answered in the negative. They are the type of “rules” I would have expected to hear at freshman orientation or at the beginning of every academic year, but didn’t.

The administration has, to its credit, evoked the spirit of these guidelines in some of their statements. Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana, for instance, made a statement in 2019 saying that some Harvard students “see those with differing opinions as undeserving of our attention, our respect, or our compassion.” The administration has also allowed the attendance of certain controversial speakers. Yet the actualization of these guidelines at the faculty and student level is yet to be seen.

FAS asserts that the “free interchange of ideas” is “vital” to the University’s mission of “discovering and disseminating ideas through research, teaching, and learning.” This “vital” purpose is drastically restricted by the utter lack of ideological variety among its faculty.

Only seven out of 236 members of the FAS identified themselves as conservative in The Crimson’s 2021 Faculty Survey. Economics professor N. Gregory Mankiw claimed that if he were “a right-of-center untenured professor” he would not “advertise [his] views.” Professor Harvey C. Mansfield Jr. ’53, a notoriously conservative professor in the Government department, shared that some of his Democratic colleagues believe that “it doesn’t matter what party [they] belong to” because they are “scientists” who are “objective.” Objectivity is a dangerous claim to make when all of your colleagues think the same way.

If non-conservative faculty have attained academic truth, the value of a liberal arts education and the goal of “discovering and disseminating ideas” become defunct. Our hallowed veritas becomes a meaningless slogan. Is it any surprise that 41 percent of Harvard’s surveyed faculty feel that the University’s standing within higher education has fallen over the last decade?

We value academic papers with peer review, scientific studies that are replicable, yet we discredit academic conversations that are examined from different angles.

Harvard’s guidelines even state that FAS does “not permit censorship of noxious ideas.” This came as a shock to me after spending the past year listening to my peers calling for the exclusion of voices they see as offensive and the administration’s tacit consent in their silence.

While I often agree that some of these “noxious ideas” are flawed, I am still convinced that their presence is of value, if just to criticize or protest. This is not, of course, an endorsement for hate speech or openly false narratives on campus. But it’s an understanding that the views some students deem offensive still have academic value. The FAS agrees: “We assume that the long term benefits to our community will outweigh the short term unpleasant effect.”

As students were calling for the banning of Trump administration officials on campus, I shared their outrage over the problematic and undemocratic nature of election misinformation. Yet, I still feel that certain administration members would bring valuable conversations to the University.

Is the purported “commitment” to open discourse truly being carried out if professors feel their academic freedom is so at risk that they have to organize with preemptive legal aid? The 18 Harvard affiliates in the new Academic Freedom Alliance would probably argue that the answer is no. Psychology professor Steven A. Pinker, one of these members, feels freedom of opinion at universities is “indisputably under threat.”

To me, it sounds like these professors are trying to protect themselves from backlash in the case that they explore a potentially “noxious” subject. Harvard hasn’t done enough to make them feel safe, so they’ve had to look outward for support.

If you don’t find this problematic, the University does, at least according to the guidelines: “Interference with members of the University in performance of their normal duties and activities” is an “unacceptable obstruction of the essential processes of the University.” This has undeniable consequences for the integrity of academia, and subsequently, the student body.

I experienced these consequences first hand in discussions about the Crimson article that revealed the faculty’s ideological homogeneity. Many of my peers did not even think this was an issue worth their time.

Upon defending the merits of ideological diversity, I am often told by peers that conservatism doesn’t even deserve a place in academia. The usual explanation is that conservatism is racism, sexism, etc. and thus, irredeemable. My ideas are deemed worthless, undeserving of a spot at the academic table.

But the grave irony of conversations like these is that my peers, especially the most antagonizing, always ask “what is conservatism?” So we are going to write off an entire ideology that we don’t understand and then assert that educational homogeneity isn’t an issue?

The FAS free speech guidelines conclude with the assertion that “intense personal harassment” amounts to “grave disrespect for the dignity of others” is an “unacceptable violation” of the “personal rights on which the University is based.”

If Harvard is to proclaim commitment to these self-authored “personal rights,” I suggest they make stronger attempts to actually uphold them.

Carine M. Hajjar ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Government concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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