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Jenny Martínez for Harvard President: A Free Speech Leader for a Polarized Era

Forging Harvard’s Future

The Harvard University President's office is located in Massachusetts Hall.
The Harvard University President's office is located in Massachusetts Hall. By Marina Qu
By Maya A. Bodnick, Contributing Opinion Writer
Maya A. Bodnick is a Government concentrator in Mather House. Her column, “Forging Harvard’s Future,” appears on alternate Tuesdays.

President Gay is gone, and Harvard must rebuild.

Ever since Hamas’ attacks on Oct. 7th, our campus has been in turmoil. Students have organized protests of a scope and scale not seen since the Vietnam War. Harvard has repeatedly made national headlines for its tepid and flawed response to the crisis. Most recently, an onslaught of attacks from right-wing activists toppled our president, making Gay’s tenure of six months and two days the shortest in the University’s history.

After the chaos of the fall semester, the months ahead will be critical for the University to restore its reputation and heal the divisions on campus. Over the course of this semester, my column will discuss Harvard’s long road to recovery.

The first order of business: Pick a new president. The president is the face of Harvard, so we must select one that stands for our values. The next president needs to repair the relationship between Jewish and Muslim communities on campus, ensure student safety, and stand tall in the face of external political pressure. But most importantly, the president should staunchly protect freedom of speech and refuse to suppress progressive advocacy.

That’s why I believe that Harvard should appoint Stanford Provost Jenny S. Martínez as our new president. I know Martínez indirectly: Her daughter is a friend of mine, and I’ve met her on a couple of occasions. National media has speculated about high-profile candidates including Barack H. Obama, Elena Kagan, and Interim President Alan M. Garber ’76. But Martínez is the best option because she is such a strong defender of free speech.

Universities are choosing the wrong types of presidents — the testimonies of then-President Gay, former University of Pennsylvania President Elizabeth Magill, and MIT President Sally A. Kornbluth before Congress made that abundantly clear. First, university boards have gravitated to academic bureaucrats who lack live-fire leadership experience. Second, and more concerning, the testimony of these presidents suggested they have few personal convictions about the myriad free speech concerns all over college campuses, instead relying on lawyers and public relations consultants to tell them what to say and do.

But unlike these unsuccessful leaders, Martínez knows how to operate in the public arena and has proven to be especially good at navigating free speech crises. Take the following example as evidence of her competence.

Last March, when Martínez was still Dean of Stanford Law School, the SLS Federalist Society invited federal judge Kyle Duncan, who was appointed by former President Donald J. Trump, to give a speech on campus. Some students objected to the invitation, claiming that Duncan should not be given a platform due to his right-wing advocacy. (Duncan previously represented a school board that had tried to ban transgender students from using their preferred bathrooms.)

Throughout his presentation, protesters heckled Duncan. And when Duncan asked for an administrator to help control the crowd, Tirien Steinbach, the DEI Dean at SLS, launched into an anti-Duncan speech and claimed that the judge’s work “literally denies the humanity of people.”

After the event, conservatives — both at Stanford and nationwide — were furious, and it fell to Martínez to respond. Many leaders would have lost their composure. But Martínez took three crucial steps to mitigate the crisis.

First, Martínez sent a formal apology to Duncan and defended him in a thoughtful 10-page memo. She acknowledged that, in a vacuum, the hecklers’ speech might be protected by the First Amendment, but argued that their disruptiveness was not because it undermined Duncan’s freedom to express his views.

Second, Martínez recognized that Steinbach had contributed to a campus culture that chilled dissent and announced she had been placed on leave.

Third, despite facing tremendous pressure from conservative stakeholders, Martínez decided not to discipline the disruptive students — arguing that harsh punishments wouldn’t address the broader civil discourse issues. Instead, Martínez turned the crisis into a valuable learning opportunity and required all law students to attend an educational session on free speech.

In a year when many university administrators have catastrophically mishandled freedom of speech crises, Martínez’s leadership in the Duncan case stood out as sophisticated, empathetic, and principled. She stridently defended Duncan’s freedom of speech without stifling student activism and disagreement. As president of Harvard, I believe that Martínez would be able to similarly handle complex speech issues.

In addition, Martínez is a legal star and certainly has the necessary academic qualifications for the position. She was Managing Editor of the Harvard Law Review and clerked for former Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. Martínez also has extensive litigation experience, including arguing before the Supreme Court in the famous Jose Padilla case. She served for four years as Dean of Stanford Law School before being appointed University Provost this fall. Her administrative experience is typical for a Harvard president. Derek Bok, for example, was Dean of HLS for less than three years before Harvard chose him to succeed Nathan Pusey, who resigned in the wake of campus protests in the 1960s.

But even if Harvard doesn’t select Martínez, they must pick a president who is equally ready to navigate the challenging speech issues facing our campus. Our new president must clearly define hate speech and set consistent University policy to respond to these incidents. And the president must determine the extent to which Harvard chooses to limit student speech in the first place.

As a Jewish student and a strong defender of freedom of speech, I hope that the next president of the University will have what it takes to both protect student advocacy and simultaneously ensure that everyone at Harvard feels welcome.

Maya A. Bodnick is a Government concentrator in Mather House. Her column, “Forging Harvard’s Future,” appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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