As University President Lawrence S. Bacow (colloquially known as Larry) announced his intent to step down from his position this summer, I could not stop thinking about another Larry who resigned from Harvard’s presidency not too long ago. Former University President Lawrence H. Summers, a provocative economist known to not sugar-coat his beliefs, ended his tumultuous term in 2006, his already-tense relationships with some faculty strained after delivering controversial remarks at an economics conference a year prior. Summers’ departure, which occurred before the term “cancel culture” entered our collective vocabulary, foreshadowed a dark trend for academic freedom.
Summers became the object of faculty ire after hypothesizing about the lack of women in high-end STEM positions. In unofficial remarks before the National Bureau of Economic Research, he posited three potential reasons women are underrepresented in top scientific positions, including “different availability of aptitude at the high end,” a theory that was informed by a scientific study and statistical calculation. Summers was greatly criticized by faculty and international media for these remarks, culminating in a lost no-confidence Faculty vote; upon a motion to face a second no-confidence vote around a year later, Summers would resign. Although some of Summers’s critics offered a substantive rebuke of his remarks, others railed against his speech without articulating an intellectual counterargument, walking out of the room to avoid hearing his reasoning.
Since the departure of Summers, other professors have experienced similar attempts to reign in their voices. Dr. Carol Hooven, who studies sex differences, publicly suffered her colleague’s wrath when she discussed the difference between biological sexes and criticized the use of the term “pregnant people.” Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker also encountered mob fury for years-old tweets that linked to New York Times and Washington Post articles about racism and police brutality. More recently, Professor Jonathan Haidt, a prominent social psychologist who researches the psychology underpinning people’s moral beliefs, resigned from his post at NYU after being told he was only allowed to publish research that advances “equity, inclusion, and anti-racism goals.”
Alone, these events are tragic incidents in which an academic fell into trouble for his or her research on controversial social issues. Together, they represent a disturbing pattern of social censorship.
According to Harvard’s conservative faculty, productive political discourse on campus is only becoming more difficult. This should not come as a surprise, given Harvard’s high-profile treatment of Summers, which made national headlines and might as well have proclaimed to the world that Harvard would no longer tolerate diverse academic speech.
While hate speech should be policed, Harvard must allow conservative speech on campus without the hostility conservative professors report facing. A speech like Summers’, lauded by many economists — including Lee Professor of Economics Claudia Goldin, who studies women’s academic and professional progress at Harvard — found valuable, is not worthy of censoring.
Promoting ideological diversity and an open exchange of ideas is a prerequisite for the pursuit of truth that Harvard so seeks. Progress is inhibited when norm-questioning perspectives are silenced. Shutting thinkers down over their academic work is dangerous.
Events like the pressure campaign that ousted Summers from office have a chilling effect on academics. University faculty saw Summers turned into a pariah at the hands of people who criticized his remarks, not on their merits, but because they were judged misogynistic. They saw the mob prevail against Summers’ defenders, who invoked John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” during the debate preceding the faculty vote. Faculty learned not to question prevailing orthodoxies. Veritas went out the window.
As one Larry prepares to leave Massachusetts Hall, the memory of a different Larry must be top of mind for the presidential search committee. The only way to rectify the chilling effect wrought by Summers’ exit is to select a president who prizes academic free expression, and is willing to signal that Summers’ ousting was wrong for a prestigious institution like Harvard. Harvard’s academic free-expression problem is much larger than the resignation of a single president, and its cure will require much more than a new president. However, a loud champion of free speech — one who will actively work to recruit diverse perspectives and welcome academic arguments of any political persuasion — would help address the dialogue deficit on Harvard’s campus.
As the search for the University’s next president progresses, Harvard has the opportunity to rectify a historical wrong and atone for a blight on its record, while addressing a larger disturbing trend about academic free expression. The time has come to lead colleges in academic speech, to return “semper” to “semper veritas.” Harvard’s atmosphere is ripe for a change of weather. Anything less would be disloyal to our motto.
Jacob M. Miller ’25 is a Crimson Editorial editor in Lowell House. His column “Diary from an Echo Chamber” appears on alternate Thursdays.