University President Lawrence S. Bacow defended the importance of free speech on campus during a faculty meeting Tuesday, but said that Harvard programs appointing individuals to an official role should “be prepared to defend why an individual is worthy of recognition” by Harvard.
Bacow’s remarks come amid calls for the University to take action to disassociate from political figures who sought to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. Multiple petitions have demanded Harvard develop guidelines barring political figures who helped incite violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6 from holding official positions.
In his address Tuesday, Bacow denounced the riot as “a disgraceful act of insurrection.” Still, he defended the University’s commitment to inviting speakers of all backgrounds and perspectives to campus.
“An invitation to speak at Harvard is not an endorsement of the speaker or their ideas — quite the opposite,” he said. “Anyone who speaks on our campus must answer questions and is expected to engage in the kind of civil dialogue we hope to see in the wider world.”
Individuals appointed to positions on campus including lecture positions and prestigious fellowships, though, should be held to higher standards and require “greater consideration,” Bacow said.
He also rejected calls for the University to rescind degrees previously conferred, denying a petition that called for him to do so for individuals who helped incite the Capitol riot.
“A Harvard degree is not conferred on the condition of future good behavior,” Bacow said. “We should expect that our alumni will be as intellectually rigorous in their careers as they were in their studies. Those who fail to meet this standard will be judged in the court of public opinion, not by Harvard.”
Though Bacow said it is not Harvard’s job to judge its alums, he defended the Harvard Kennedy School’s decision to remove U.S. Representative Elise M. Stefanik ’06 (R-N.Y.) from the Institute of Politics’s Senior Advisory Committee after she challenged the certification of President Joe Biden’s Electoral College win and promoted unfounded claims of voter fraud.
“These unfounded assertions helped to undermine the electoral process,” Bacow said. “This made the Congresswoman’s position as an adviser to an organization dedicated to promoting undergraduate engagement with that same electoral process untenable.”
Jacob R. Carrel ’16, an author of the petition signed by nearly 700 affiliates calling for Stefanik’s removal from IOP leadership, wrote in an email Tuesday that Stefanik’s actions failed to “advance any real ideas.”
“Institutions can and should promote academic freedom, but doing so effectively requires giving a platform to those who disagree in good faith and based on facts, not those who traffic in lies for personal gain,” Carrel wrote.
Diego A. Garcia Blum — a Kennedy School student who started a petition in November calling on Harvard to develop “accountability guidelines” for welcoming former Trump administration officials — said Bacow’s remarks left him “optimistic” about how the school will act going forward.
“It is important for an institution like Harvard — that has the motto Veritas — to really make a stand for the principles it says that it values,” he said. “What I heard today from the remarks was heartening in that it seems that President Bacow is willing to stand for those.”
Values such as academic freedom and free speech play an important role in the University’s mission to educate the next generation of leaders, Bacow said. He said Harvard should provide an environment in which all affiliates feel free to speak their minds, expand their thinking, and engage with others who hold opposing views.
“We are better served by sharpening our arguments and strengthening our resolve than by distancing ourselves from those with whom we disagree,” Bacow said. “The defense of free and honest inquiry in the unfettered pursuit of truth is our shared responsibility—and among our most sacred commitments.”
—Staff writer Jasper G. Goodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Jasper_Goodman.
—Staff writer Kelsey J. Griffin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @kelseyjgriffin.