Campus & Community

Co-chairs of task forces share updates on community engagement

Harvard  Yard.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

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Leaders of efforts to combat antisemitism and anti-Muslim and anti-Arab bias describe what they’ve heard so far from members of the Harvard community

In January, Harvard’s interim president, Alan M. Garber, announced the formation of two presidential task forces focused on combating antisemitism and anti-Muslim and anti-Arab bias. He charged the task forces with a three-pronged approach to their work: outreach and listening to the Harvard community; historical analysis of experiences of and attitudes toward members of Jewish and/or Israeli background and Arab, Palestinian, and Muslim students; and the collection of data to characterize the nature, extent, and proximate causes of antisemitism and anti-Arab and/or Anti-Muslim bias. Garber asked that recommendations be shared with University leaders on a rolling basis so that “we might consider, refine, and implement interventions, and to keep the community apprised as our work together proceeds.”

The Gazette recently sat down with the five co-chairs of these task forces:

  • Ali Asani, co-chair, Combating Anti-Muslim and Anti-Arab Bias Task Force. Murray A. Albertson Professor of Middle Eastern Studies and Professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Religion and Cultures in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences
  • Jared Ellias, co-chair, Combating Antisemitism Task Force. Scott C. Collins Professor of Law at Harvard Law School
  • Wafaie Fawzi, co-chair, Combating Anti-Muslim and Anti-Arab Bias Task Force. Richard Saltonstall Professor of Population Sciences and a professor of nutrition, epidemiology, and global health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
  • Asim Ijaz Khwaja, co-chair, Combating Anti-Muslim and Anti-Arab Bias Task Force. Sumitomo-FASID Professor of International Finance and Development at Harvard Kennedy School
  • Derek Penslar, co-chair, Combating Antisemitism Task Force. William Lee Frost Professor of Jewish History in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences

The discussion centered on what the co-chairs had been hearing from the Harvard community, what themes were emerging, and what comes next. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

One of the initial steps the task forces have taken is holding listening sessions and other engagement opportunities. More than 50 have been scheduled. What are you hearing from students and other members of the community?

Ellias: It is clear that events on the other side of the world have reverberated on our campus in a very profound way, reshaping the social and academic lives of our students in ways that many have found painful. Symbols and chants often have very different meanings for the students who wear or say something versus other students who see those same symbols and hear those same chants. We have spoken to students with very different views on the current conflict, and to be frank, all sides feel a great deal of pain that is quite similar. We have met Jewish students who feel isolated from the general community and Jewish students who feel doubly isolated — from both the general community and also from the Jewish community.

Fawzi: It’s not always expressed, but until recently there has been a general sense of pride among the students about being part of the University. I believe this remains but has been diminished by a limited sense of belonging given the incidents of hatred and bias some have described during the listening sessions. We heard from students about their attempts to bring their concerns about specific incidents to different parts of the administration, but they experienced limited support or action to adequately address their concerns. Another point that we are consistently hearing is a strong desire to have more recognition of anti-Palestinian bias on campus. Students report that many incidents affect not only Muslims and Arabs, but a wider segment of the community that includes those who are neither but are allied with and supportive of Palestinian aspirations.

Asani: We are also encountering experiences related to Islamophobia, a pervasive phenomenon that has been classified as a form of racism. It combines a fear of Islam, those who identify with it, as well as anyone who is perceived as being Muslim. Such fear is accompanied by assertions of racial, cultural, and moral superiority. A person may be targeted based on their skin color alone. So, we are finding in our conversations that our students of South Asian and African American backgrounds have also been affected.

Penslar: Many Jewish students, or students who identify as Jewish, are experiencing various forms of antisemitism. In the case of Jewish students, among those who are most vulnerable are those who are visibly Jewish, such as men who wear a kippah. They are easily identifiable as Jewish, and they have described being at the forefront of those who are the objects of insults and other forms of abuse. We have also heard about a particularly virulent form of bias — exclusion and shunning against students of Israeli nationality, for no other reason than the fact that they happen to be Israeli.

Asani: Muslim women who wear the hijab have also felt particularly targeted. They feel unsafe on and off campus. They have been accosted verbally as “terrorists” as well as physically threatened. Another visible symbol being targeted for abuse and harassment is the keffiyeh, the Palestinian scarf, whether the persons wearing it are Muslim, Arab, Palestinian, or those allied with the Palestinian cause.

Khwaja: While these sessions are intended to listen to students and learn from their experiences — and we have indeed heard devastating accounts of students being doxxed via trucks and disclosure of private information, physically threatened, verbally abused, and a range of online and offline harassment by external actors as well as community members — we are also finding that students have already been reached out to many times and are tired of being “listened to” with little action taken. Given what they’ve experienced, this is understandable. While we do underscore how important it is to have these experiences be documented and shared more systematically, it is critical that we also use these sessions to start rebuilding trust by acknowledging that we fell short earlier, by being open and transparent about what we are doing now and how we hope it can help, and also by starting to take some visible actions.

“We have spoken to students with very different views on the current conflict, and to be frank, all sides feel a great deal of pain that is quite similar.”

Jared Ellias

You’ve all mentioned this idea of trust: trust in you all as co-chairs and the task forces, and then also trust in the University. How do you think about building that trust? And how do you think of these task forces advancing this work together at this moment given what you’ve heard thus far?

Khwaja: How we coordinate with each other and publicly demonstrate that we’re coordinating sends a message not just to Harvard, but to the world about how we should progress on these issues. So far, everything we’ve done is very much in parallel. But I anticipate there will be moments within our task forces where we will disagree with each other. I hope that the fact that we’re building these relationships — we talk weekly — will allow us to also navigate really hard conversations within ourselves as task forces first, before we put them out to the community to grapple with them.

Penslar: The fact that we are different task forces, but that all the co-chairs are meeting regularly, is a sign of a recognition of difference but also of comity within difference.

Ellias: We think it is very important to start from the first principles of why Harvard University goes to the trouble to assemble a class of students with a huge range of talents and backgrounds. While the full answer is more complicated, a huge reason is to give those students the chance to learn together and from each other. The same is just as true with our two task forces.

You have a charge around historical analysis and attitudes. How are you approaching that?

Penslar: One of our task forces’ workstreams is about the position of Jews at Harvard prior to Oct. 7. I’d like to trace change over time since the 1960s, with a focus on the last 20 years to see to what extent relations between Jewish and Israeli students on the one hand, and the broader Harvard community on the other, were already problematic if not dysfunctional.

Asani: Our task force will be considering anti-Muslim, anti-Arab, and anti-Palestinian bias, not only within the context of the Harvard experience, but also within the context of deep political divides in the United States over who is American. In recent years, Arabs, Muslims, and those perceived to be Muslim have been targeted by various political groups as being un-American, as threats to the nation, and have even been subjected to surveillance. The Trump ban, for example, deeply impacted Muslims on campuses across the United States, including Harvard. We will also be looking at the impact that events such as 9/11, U.S. foreign policy, and the Afghanistan and Iraq wars had on the Muslim experience on campus. We are also interested in the experiences of African and African American Muslims, as they have encountered racism based on their religion and race.

How are you thinking about data collection? Will you be using surveys, for example? What about the documentation students shared with the Office of the President and Provost in the fall? 

Khwaja: We are considering two broad classes of data, qualitative and quantitative data, to get a sense of the community’s experiences, underlying factors, and possible remedies. We will draw on multiple sources. First, we are hoping to collect information students may have already submitted in the fall. It’s challenging because that information sits in lots of different places and so we are both making centralized requests to aggregate that information and are also requesting that our students and community members resubmit it — wherever possible and easy — using the taskforce portal (accessible at and The second source is the listening sessions themselves. It’s mostly small-sample qualitative data at this point, but that’s already been very helpful. The third is, we are hoping to do a community-wide survey jointly with the antisemitism task force. This will be a large-sample, short survey administered to the entire Harvard community. Our hope is to include not just Arab, Jewish, Israeli, Palestinian, and Muslim faculty, staff, and students, but also every single member of our community, because there are many others who, in one way or the other, have views or have been affected by these events, and we’d like to solicit their perspectives as well.

Ellias: We also have discrete conversations and have added additional opportunities to learn from groups of students who prefer smaller listening sessions more focused on a particular perspective.

“As part of our outreach thus far, we are not just documenting incidents and concerns, but also soliciting ideas from students, faculty, and staff on potential solutions and steps forward. ”

Wafaie Fawzi 

Are there any recommended actions that you have already shared with President Garber — or that you expect to share? 

Penslar: I hope that we will be issuing recommendations in tranches, and that the first tranche will come later in the spring after we’ve had a chance to process listening session data and other information. There’s no question that the students we’ve been listening to have a sense of urgency in addition to questions of trust in the University to take steps to improve the campus atmosphere.

Fawzi: As part of our outreach thus far, we are not just documenting incidents and concerns, but also soliciting ideas from students, faculty, and staff on potential solutions and steps forward. For many we have heard from so far, there is a degree of skepticism and a “wait and see” approach. Students want to see that these task forces deliver meaningful solutions that will make genuine strides toward having an environment where all members of our community can feel equally respected and thrive.

Khwaja: I would say there’s a very strong realization and perhaps a recommendation already emerging in my mind, which is that the task force members and Harvard leadership, all the way up to the president, have to show up. These conversations will be hard, and students will express how angry and upset they are at us, and, yes, even “grill” us. We will not always be welcomed, but that should not deter us from engaging and doing so in a way that models how leaders of an institution like Harvard approach difficult but necessary conversations.

Asani: Central to rebuilding trust at the University is the reaffirmation and commitment to uphold and implement the values we share as a community: 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.

Penslar: We’ve talked a lot about comity and respect and the like, but something we shouldn’t leave out is responsibility. Students, faculty, and staff at Harvard must realize that their words and their actions have consequences in terms of how they affect others’ well-being. We need to think more carefully about not only what the University can do to promote a healthier and more respectful, warmer atmosphere on campus, but also the consequences when students or other members of our community do hurtful and harmful things.

What can we expect next from these task forces? 

Khwaja: Empathy and patience, deep concern and commitment to transparency, and just lots and lots of work ahead.

Ellias: We will continue to perform our work to listen, to learn, and to study. We have little ability on our campus to control events abroad, but what we can do is control how we treat the people we encounter here in Cambridge, Massachusetts.