Campus & Community

‘Harvard Dialogues’ taps power of respectful debate

Harvard Yard following a recent snowstorm.

Harvard Yard in January.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

long read

A week of programming anchors an initiative that will help students, faculty, and others engage in candid conversations on tough topics

Harvard’s 2024 spring term kicks off with events across the University designed to enhance our ability to engage in respectful and robust debate.

As part of a commitment to open discourse on campus and off, Harvard will hold a series of events designed to model productive dialogue. “Harvard Dialogues,” which launched Thursday, is part of a broader initiative to address how the campus community can communicate more openly and constructively within classrooms and in the broader world.

“A stunning array of programs is coming together across Harvard as we reconvene for the spring semester,” said Interim President Alan M. Garber. “Intellectual revelations often emerge from exposure to unfamiliar and uncomfortable ideas. It isn’t easy to have one’s beliefs challenged, but constructive dialogue creates the conditions in which genuine learning can occur. I hope that the dialogue events will demonstrate that when open debate and respectful disagreement thrive, academic excellence follows.”

While the events are a component of efforts underway to address questions around civil dialogue on campus, they’re just one step in a multi-pronged initiative over the coming weeks and months to create conversations around difficult topics.

Initial programming includes panels and workshops for audiences including students, faculty, staff, and the broader community. Topics include everything from navigating contentious classroom conversations to discussing research findings to practicing better listening.

See below for a selected list of events.

Jan. 18 and Jan. 19
PEN America’s Free Expression Student Summit
Various times
Faculty of Arts and Sciences

PEN America is coming to Harvard College this January for a first-ever Free Expression Student Summit for college students in Boston. This day-and-a-half-long program will feature a keynote panel and workshop series covering various free-expression topics from across PEN America’s field of work, as well as an advocacy simulation activity where participants will be able to design campaigns centering on issues they care about.

The summit will begin on Jan. 18 with a public keynote panel (6:30-8 p.m.) that will discuss the role of college students and future leaders in combating censorship, hate, and the spread of disinformation. The following day will consist of several workshops that students can choose from to acquire training in the theories, laws, and practical challenges facing professionals in different areas of free-expression work. Following the workshops, students will then convene for an advocacy campaign simulation activity, choosing an issue, conceptualizing a theory of change, and designing an event, program, or initiative to address the issue.

Open to: The Jan. 18 event is open to the public and the Jan. 19 workshops are open to registered undergraduate students only. For registered undergraduate students, dinner will be provided on the first night, and breakfast and lunch will be provided on the second day. Capacity is limited so register as soon as possible.

Jan. 19
Setting the Table: Best Practices in Establishing Civil Discourse Norms in the Classroom        
1:30–2:30 p.m.; Zoom meeting
Faculty of Arts and Sciences

In this workshop, participants will think deeply about how to foster constructive dialogue and establish free and open conversations in Harvard classrooms. By making small but important adjustments to syllabi and modeling conversational norms early in the course, instructors can help students speak honestly and listen with empathy. Moderator Eric Beerbohm, professor of government and faculty director of the Edmond & Lily Safra Center for Ethics, will discuss best practices with colleagues from the professional Schools who have done much work on the subject, and then open the conversation to the broader audience. Panelists include Archon Fung (Harvard Kennedy School), Meira Levinson (Harvard Graduate School of Education), and Janet Halley (Harvard Law School).

Open to: FAS teaching faculty

Art and Science of Engaging Across Disagreement
11 a.m.–12:30 p.m.
Harvard Kennedy School

HKS Professors Julia Minson and Robert Wilkinson will lead the HKS community in an all-school workshop on the art and science of engaging across disagreement in the JFK Forum.

Open to: HKS Faculty, staff, students, and fellows

Jan. 19–Jan. 22
Intercollegiate Civil Disagreement Partnership (ICDP) Retreat

Faculty of Arts and Sciences

This event follows the PEN America Free Expression Summit and will be the first in-person gathering for ICDP leadership and students. It is intended as an opportunity to: synthesize key takeaways from fall research efforts and their implications for the design of the ICDP going forward, identify the key design questions to be tackled during the spring and develop a workplan, and continue to build strong relationships among the group. It follows work done in Fall 2023 by teams at each institution on their institution’s history, current work, and future efforts surrounding civil dialogue and discourse as well as landscape research from outside the consortium.

Open to: Students participating in the program

Jan. 22
Leading When It’s Difficult
6 p.m.
Harvard Business School, Klarman Hall

Join Nitin Nohria (former HBS Dean, George F. Baker Jr. Professor of Business Administration, and Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor; participating in person) for a conversation with Mitt Romney (M.B.A. ’74, J.D. ’75; participating virtually) that will draw on his experience as a leader in public and private life — whether as a senator from Utah (since 2019), as the Republican nominee for president, as the governor of Massachusetts, or as a co-founder of Bain Capital and CEO of Bain & Company. What does it mean to advance civil dialogue, at Harvard, in business, or in government? There will be time for Q&A.

Open to: Harvard ID holders; register here.

Jan. 23
Community Dialogue Series: What it Means to Be a Good Neighbor 
Noon–1:30 p.m. (Refreshments at noon; the conversation and live stream start at 12:30 p.m.)
Smith Campus Center, 1st Floor

Harvard Chaplains and the University Office for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging

Heightened tensions and polarization have left many students, faculty, postdoctoral fellows, and staff feeling anxious or alienated from one another. Join members of the Harvard Chaplains who will consider what it means to be a good neighbor and how our responsibility to each other can help build trust and community.


  • Imam Dr. Khalil Abdur-Rashid, University Muslim Chaplain, Instructor of Muslim Studies at Harvard Divinity School, and Public Policy Lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government
  • Rabbi Getzel Davis, Campus Rabbi, Harvard Hillel
  • Greg M. Epstein, Humanist Chaplain at Harvard and MIT
  • The Rev. Professor Matthew Ichihashi Potts, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church
  • Tammy McLeod, President of the Harvard Chaplains and Cru Chaplaincy

Moderator: Sherri Ann Charleston, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, Harvard University

Live CART will be featured during the discussion. Persons with disabilities who would like to request accommodations or have questions about physical access may contact or (617) 495-1132 in advance of the event.

Open to: Harvard ID holders. Register and bring your Harvard ID or learn by live stream.

Dialogue Across Differences: Teaching and Learning in Polarized Times

3 p.m.
Faculty of Arts and Sciences

Is it possible to cultivate in students the ability to reason together about ethically charged questions, even when passions run high? How, at a time of toxic public discourse, can faculty help students acquire the civic virtues of listening and learning, persuading and being persuaded, in the company of those with whom they disagree? For decades, Michael Sandel has challenged students to think together about some of most fraught questions of our time — affirmative action; same-sex marriage; free speech and hate speech; equality and inequality; the meaning of merit; the ethics of AI. In this special gathering of FAS faculty, Sandel will lead a discussion of the perils and possibilities of engaging with hard moral and political questions in the classroom and beyond. 

Open to: Faculty

Jan. 24
Connecting Beyond Difference
1 p.m.
Harvard Radcliffe Institute

The HRI community will gather for a training program on civil dialogue and constructive disagreement. Titled “Connecting Beyond Difference,” this interactive experience imparts the skills and confidence to engage in difficult conversations, and a safe environment in which to practice using them. Participants leave with expanded empathy for alternate positions, development of language to disagree and continue dialogue, and an increased ability to connect beyond differences. 

Open to: Members of the HRI community

Modeling Civil Dialogue for Students with Michael Sandel
5 p.m.–6:15 p.m.
Sanders Theatre
Faculty of Arts and Sciences

How can we think through the ethical dilemmas posed by new technologies?  Is it possible to reason together, and argue together, about controversial questions with civility and mutual respect? To explore these questions, all Harvard students are invited to join Michael Sandel in Sanders Theatre for a lively, interactive session on the ethics of AI. 

This marquee event in Harvard’s Week of Dialogue will invite students to consider some hard questions raised by AI, chatbots, and big data: Can tech help us find love?  Do dating apps help or hinder the search for the ideal partner? Will AI change the meaning of friendship, companionship, and intimacy? Does technology erode the distinction between virtual and actual human connection? Will chatbots blur the line between life and death?  

  Following the discussion with Sandel in Sanders Theatre, students are invited to continue the conversation over dinner in Annenberg and House dining halls in a dialogue led by Edmond & Lily Safra Center Fellows in Values Engagement. Although the questions will not likely resolve in an evening, this aims to be the start of a continuing effort to put moral and civic reflection at the heart of the Harvard experience.    

Open to: Harvard ID holders

Staff Summit on Free Expression with PEN America
Faculty of Arts and Sciences

PEN America will facilitate a day-long summit similar to the program with students on Jan. 18 and 19. Everything will be done in a large group setting (capacity: 120).

Open to: Harvard College staff (event full)

Building Capacity for Critical, but Civil, Discourse in Graduate Training Environments at HMS
5–7 p.m., TMEC 106
Harvard Medical School

The ability to engage others in substantive — and at times, challenging — dialogue is important to professional activities beyond the narrow context of discussing research findings. It enables meaningful connection with colleagues to collaboratively make sense of the complex and ever-changing societal context in which scholarly activities occur. This workshop invites graduate students to network with colleagues and collaboratively discuss examples of, and barriers to, civil discourse in both the professional context (e.g., academic conferences and publishing) and the local graduate training context at HMS. Participants will reflect on the different spaces that graduate students occupy, including the classroom, laboratory, and broader departmental/institutional contexts. Discussion concepts include safe vs. brave spaces, controversy with civility, and inclusive listening, and participants will collaboratively brainstorm how to build capacity for productive discourse in these settings through the lens of safe/brave spaces. 

Open to: HMS Ph.D., Master’s students, dental students, and medical students (in-person only)

Jan. 25 
How Do We Talk About Spaces of Conflict and Build for Peace? 
Graduate School of Design

The consequences of conflict impact our surroundings, experiences, and perspectives. This community dialogue, facilitated by the design critic Malkit Shoshan, will explore the concept of spaces of conflict and unpack how we talk about them. Shoshan is the author and map maker of “Atlas of Conflict: Israel-Palestine.”

Open to: GSD students, faculty, staff, and affiliates

HLS Rappaport Forum — Trump v. Anderson: Does the Fourteenth Amendment Disqualify Former President Trump from Public Office?
12:20-1:20 p.m.
Harvard Law School

The Harvard Law School Rappaport Forum is designed to promote and model full, vigorous, and civil discourse on critical and complicated issues facing the Harvard community, the nation, and the world. This panel discussion will be moderated by Jeannie Suk Gersen, the John H. Watson Jr. Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, and will feature guest speakers Akhil Amar, Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science Yale Law School, and Michael Mukasey, of counsel to a N.Y. law firm, former U.S. Attorney General, and chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. 

Open to: Harvard ID holders. Register for the Forum.

IOP Forum on Dissent, Disagreement, and Democracy
6 p.m.
Harvard Kennedy School; JFK Forum

In this session, HKS Professors Archon Fung, Danielle Allen, Arthur Brooks, Eliana La Ferrara, and Cornell Brooks will discuss how open inquiry, candid conversations across difference, and intellectual vitality contribute to democracy and social cohesion. This event will take place in the JFK Forum; the HKS website Candid & Constructive Conversations has a comprehensive list of programs and initiatives.

Open to: Harvard ID holders

Jan. 26
Dialogue across Differences: Learning and Serving in a Multi-Religious Society
10:30 a.m. -12:30 p.m.
Harvard Divinity School

What does it look like to engage in conversations and build relationships within a religiously pluralistic society? In this session, led by three members of the faculty, HDS students and faculty will discuss how to foster dialogue across religious differences to expand their knowledge base and build empathy for those with different perspectives. The group will also participate in a case study designed to put ideas into practice, followed by a lunch to help build community. Ideas generated throughout the event will help students in the classroom, as well as in their careers and personal lives as they work to serve a religiously pluralistic society.

Open to: HDS faculty and students

Listening for Constructive Conversations
Harvard Chan School of Public Health

The way we listen can shift the dynamics of a conversation. Listening well helps foster connection, collaboration, and more civil discourse. This 90-minute interactive workshop is an opportunity to practice listening and speaking in ways that promote constructive conversation. Participants will leave with frameworks for full-spectrum listening and a deeper understanding of the relationship between our intentions as listeners and the impact listening has on relationships and communication. This program will involve active participation and intentional skill-building.

Open to: Selected student leaders and teaching fellows

SEAS Faculty Dialogue Panels
The School of Engineering and Applied Sciences will host three in-person, moderated panel discussions featuring faculty discussing a complex and possibly contentious topic in their field.

Open to: Harvard ID holders

Generative AI: Winners and Losers
11 a.m.–noon, reception noon-12.30 p.m.

Moderator: Professor Stuart Shieber
Panel: Professor Boaz Barak, Professor Finale Doshi-Velez, Professor Hima Lakkaraju
Location: SEC LL2.224
Reception: LL2 Atrium

The Bionic Human: Societal Challenges and Opportunities at the Frontier of Biomedical Innovation
11 a.m.–noon, reception noon-12.30 p.m.

Moderator: Professor Jennifer Lewis
Panel: Professor Patrick Slade, Professor Shriya Srinivasan, Elizabeth Suitor (Ph.D. student in Electrical Engineering), Professor Conor Walsh
Location: SEC LL2.229
Reception: LL2 Atrium

Researching Solar Geoengineering: A Necessary Climate Approach or Dangerous Distraction?
3-4 p.m., reception 4-4:30 p.m.

Moderator: Professor Frank Keutsch
Panel: Professor Jim Anderson, Professor Marianna Linz, Professor Eli Tziperman, Professor Steve Wofsy
Location: Pierce 209
Reception: MD 119 Lobby