Credits: Harvard Staff Photo; Mark Dunn

Campus & Community

When should Harvard speak out?

Institutional Voice Working Group provides a roadmap in new report

long read

In April, interim President Alan M. Garber and interim Provost John F. Manning announced two University-wide initiatives to explore how best to cultivate and reinforce open inquiry, constructive dialogue, and academic freedom on campus. The first, the Open Inquiry and Constructive Dialogue Working Group, is examining how to nurture and support engagement across differing viewpoints in Harvard’s teaching, learning, and dialogue. The second, the Institutional Voice Working Group, has taken up the more specific question of whether and when Harvard as a University should speak on matters of social and political significance and who should be authorized to speak for the institution as a whole. On Tuesday, Garber, Manning, and the deans of Harvard’s Schools announced that they had accepted the working group’s proposed statement of principles.

The Institutional Voice Working Group began its work by conducting a broad review of the types of public statements that Harvard and peer institutions have made in recent years. It also invited community feedback. The group has engaged in extensive outreach to members of the Harvard community, conducting a survey, soliciting input via email, and hosting more than 30 virtual and in-person listening sessions. Discussions covered the criteria by which the University and its various units should make official statements about public matters, the rationale behind these criteria, and the consequences that might arise for Harvard and its community when they do so.

The Gazette spoke with co-chairs Noah Feldman and Alison Simmons about the working group’s report. Feldman is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and chair of Harvard’s Society of Fellows. Simmons is the Samuel H. Wolcott Professor of Philosophy and faculty co-director, Embedded EthiCS, in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Can you summarize the report and what it seeks to do?

Simmons: Our charge was to answer the question: When, if at all, should the University make official statements about global events, and why/why not? We leaned into the why/why not. When the University speaks on an event or issue, why? What makes speaking about that event appropriate? Recognizing that not speaking about an event or issue is itself a speech act that will be “heard,” a compelling reason needs to be given for that too. We aimed to produce a guiding document that sets out the principles underlying the decision whether or not to issue a formal statement.

Feldman: The main point of the report is that the University’s leadership can and should speak out on anything relevant to the core function of the University, which is creating an environment suitable for free, open inquiry, teaching, and research. That environment is threatened these days, and we need to defend it. At the same time, the University as an institution should not make official statements on issues outside its core function. Harvard isn’t a government. It shouldn’t have a foreign policy or a domestic policy.

In the end, we believe this approach is actually more inclusive to the whole community. We heard loud and clear from many stakeholders that if we speak out some of the time on some global or national issues, then many people feel we are ignoring other issues. And on some issues, our community is divided or the world is divided in such a way that we are going to drive controversy no matter what we say.

“Given the broad consensus we heard, we hope these principles will serve the University’s diverse community well for many years to come.”

Alison Simmons

The report describes the University’s purpose as “the pursuit of truth.” Why is this the core principle that should inform the use of Harvard’s institutional voice?

Feldman: Here at Harvard, we hold firmly to our ideal of Veritas. Our charge was to think about how institutional statements affect the carrying out of this purpose. As members of a university, we pursue truth through inquiry, debate, research, and a range of other methods. Our expertise lies in our scholarship. As an institution, Harvard doesn’t add to the truth by announcing a single official position on what is true in science or politics or whatever. In fact, it undermines our mission if the University makes official declarations about matters outside its core function.

Simmons: Pursuing truth looks different in different fields of study. Some of us think we are after understanding (a text, an artwork, a religious tradition). Some of us think of ourselves as producing knowledge (scientific, social, medical, legal). Some of us think we are preserving (cultural forms, objects, ideas). And methodologies vary widely across academic disciplines and Harvard’s Schools. So, by “truth” we mean to cast a wide net.

If what we do in the University is to pursue truth — and to pursue it by reasoned argument and debate, controlled experiment, and so on — then the job of the University as an institution is to create an environment in which we can have a healthy, productive, and free exchange of ideas and argument among diverse points of view on issues of science, society, values, culture, etc. We make progress by encountering friction with the things we take to be obviously true now, so long as the friction comes from a desire to get it right and not to shut down argument. We all have to be open to being challenged and to changing our minds in the face of new evidence. And we all have to engage people who think differently from us with curiosity and openness.

Feldman: One comment from a focus group with students that stands out in my mind is, “Everyone gets the emails and then everyone feels bad.” We’ve come to understand just how unsatisfactory statements truly are and how far they stray from our core function as an institution of higher learning. Leadership cares deeply for the community and they want to respond to the community’s desire for solutions to difficult social and political events playing out all over the world — but statements can’t provide this. Even expressions of empathy, when sent to such a broad community, can fall flat. What we recommend in our report is a return to what a university does best — teaching, research, learning, and service as an answer to these events.

In this report, who is the “we” when you say “institutional voice”?

Feldman: Our report applies to anyone authorized to speak on behalf of the University officially (the president, provost, deans, and other administrative leaders). Individual faculty and students have academic freedom. But they don’t speak on behalf of the whole University. That needs to be understood by the whole world.

Simmons: It is the individual community members who have academic freedom to pursue the questions they find important and interesting, to develop expertise in their chosen field, to teach the material they think is important, and to speak out on issues they find compelling. The University does not tell us what to say or think. And when we speak, we do not speak for the University. The University (i.e., its leadership) must use its voice to protect and promote the ability of all its community members to do precisely those things.

What did you hear in the listening sessions and from those who submitted thoughts and ideas through the survey or via email? How did it inform the report?

Simmons: One thing I learned is just how much people care about this institution. They really want Harvard to be the best place it can be. In that respect, I felt we were all trying to figure out how to answer this question together. We also heard a lot from people who feel pressure to “speak for Harvard” when they do not want to (because they recognize they cannot speak for everyone).

Feldman: We also heard a lot about how institutional statements and statements by individuals are taken up by the media, including social media. In an age of social media, it is easy for the public to think that anyone who posts wearing a crimson sweatshirt speaks “for” Harvard. They don’t! And we need to make that clear.

Given that Harvard is often the subject of intense public interest, some community members have called for the University to adopt a policy of institutional neutrality. This would be similar to the University of Chicago’s policy, as outlined in a document known as the Kalven Report, which calls for the neutrality of the university “out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints.” Does your report call for institutional neutrality?

Feldman: Our report has some meaningful overlap with the Kalven Report. A key difference between the Kalven Report and ours is that we’re saying that, as an institution with values, we have a responsibility to promote our core function as an educational institution and defend ourselves against forces that seek to undermine our academic values. In that sense, we aren’t neutral, and we can’t be. Another big difference is our reason for restraint, which is based on speaking where we are experts and not speaking where the University as an institution isn’t expert.

Is the report a response to the many challenges Harvard and other higher ed institutions have faced since Oct. 7?

Simmons: The University has been making statements about all sorts of things for a long time. Conversations about whether it should be making so many statements have also been taking place for a long time. But the reality in which the University operates has changed over the past 10 years or so in ways that make it pressing to form a policy on the “to speak or not to speak” question.

First, news travels rapidly and widely through social media. When the University issues a statement, it reaches the entire world (intact or in distorted pieces) in seconds. (By contrast, when Derek Bok was president from 1971 to 1991, he wrote up quite long statements that were physically slid under the doors of faculty and students!) What’s more, anyone with a social media account can appear to the public to speak for Harvard. And that makes it hard for people outside the University to know what is and what is not an “official” Harvard statement. There’s just a lot less control over University communications.

Second, we now live in a world of extreme political polarization. And that means both that people tend to react to University statements (again, intact or distorted) in a polarized way, and also put pressure on the University to speak or not speak in polarized ways.

These two changes were certainly on display in the wake of Oct. 7. But they have been in place for quite some time. And the combination of these two new realities has made it important to form a policy.

How will this work dovetail with the work of the Open Inquiry and Constructive Dialogue Working Group?

Feldman: We were fortunate that we were asked for a clear deliverable — a set of principles for when the University should and should not issue official statements. The Open Inquiry Working Group has been asked to address a broader and more complex set of issues about how we can maintain and improve the work we do as a University. The two are connected, though. Both are concerned with how we achieve the core purpose we share.

Simmons: I think that our report might help to provide a framework and some core principles that can support the important work of the Open Inquiry and Constructive Dialogue Working Group. They are already thinking hard about how to promote constructive dialogue in the classroom, in the dining hall, and in the Houses — i.e., on the ground. I think they will help us learn how best to encourage our students to learn from each other through constructive disagreement, genuine curiosity, intellectual give and take, and a desire to grow.

We think our proposal can support that and we take it as a reminder to all of us that the University must commit itself to the value of creating an environment that facilitates open inquiry, and to acknowledge that the University itself must positively promote it and take great care not to jeopardize it, even if only inadvertently.

What’s next? How does the University translate these principles into action?

Simmons: For one, the community will need some time to get used to the idea that the University will not be speaking on a great number of things.

Feldman: Absolutely. With the University’s decision to take up these principles, there will need to be a significant culture shift as people realize, inside Harvard and outside, that the University has genuinely adopted a “say less” policy.

Simmons: We have come to expect those emails from the president’s office (and then the deans’ offices and then other School-based offices) when something urgent happens in the world. It will be startling, and possibly unsettling for a while, not to get them. University leadership will have to remind us all why it is not making as many statements as it used to. Another thing University leadership will have to do is figure out how to translate our recommendation into concrete policy and how to operationalize it.

Our working group set out to provide principles for a strong foundation for the University and any other university that might find these principles valuable. We received thoughtful input from more than 1,000 people across the University. Given the broad consensus we heard, we hope these principles will serve the University’s diverse community well for many years to come.

Feldman: Our goal is for the individual, expert voices of the University to be heard loud and clear. When the University focuses its institutional voice on its core function — and only on its core function — that will highlight the extraordinary work the members of the University do. When the University flourishes, we all can make more valuable contributions to knowledge and to the world.