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Harvard Will Refrain From Controversial Statements About Public Policy Issues

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Updated May 28, 2024, at 12:34 p.m.

After months of grappling with a campus fractured by a polarizing debate over the Israel-Hamas war, Harvard announced on Tuesday that the University and its leadership will refrain from taking official positions on controversial public policy issues.

The University’s new stance followed a report produced from a faculty-led “Institutional Voice” working group, which advised leadership to not “issue official statements about public matters that do not directly affect the university’s core function.” Interim Harvard President Alan M. Garber ’76 wrote in an email that he accepted the working group’s recommendations, which were also endorsed by the Harvard Corporation, the University’s highest governing body.

“There will be close cases where reasonable people disagree about whether a given issue is or is not directly related to the core function of the university,” the report stated. “The university’s policy in those situations should be to err on the side of avoiding official statements.”

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The policy will apply to all University administrators and governing board members, as well as deans, department chairs, and faculty councils, according to the working group.

The new guidelines come just months after former Harvard President Claudine Gay resigned following fierce criticism over her initial statement after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, a scenario that the University hopes to never repeat with this new stance.

The “Institutional Voice” recommendations bring Harvard closer in line with peer universities that have adopted stances of institutional neutrality, but the working group’s report and Garber’s announcement were careful to highlight that the University will not be neutral.

“Our report argues that the University is fundamentally committed to a non-neutral set of values specifically, getting to the truth by experiment, open inquiry, and debate,” said Noah R. Feldman ’92, who co-chaired the working group and serves as a Harvard Law School professor.

“The University is regularly under attack today, as truth itself is under attack,” Feldman added. “This report says the University should not be neutral in that important matter of the future of universities.”

The announcement is part of a broader effort by Garber to guide Harvard out of crisis and safeguard the University against the type of attacks it faced last fall. Garber also established a working group on open inquiry and twin presidential task forces to combat antisemitism and anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bias.

The “Institutional Voice” working group’s report never mentioned the controversy that contributed to Gay’s resignation or mentioned her by name. Still, the report contained several thinly veiled references to the events of last fall, when more than 30 student groups signed a statement that held Israel “entirely responsible” for Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on the country, which forced Gay to publicly distance herself and the University from the statement.

“Individuals within the university, exercising their academic freedom, sometimes make statements that occasion strong disagreement,” the report stated. “When this happens, the university should clarify that they do not speak for the university and that no one is authorized to speak on behalf of the university except the university’s leadership.”

Just like Gay faced backlash from both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine Harvard affiliates, the group noted that any statement on a controversial public issue will likely anger somebody.

“Because few, if any, world events can be entirely isolated from conflicting viewpoints, issuing official empathy statements runs the risk of alienating some members of the community by expressing implicit solidarity with others,” the group wrote.

In his Tuesday email, which was co-signed by 17 other top administrators, Garber wrote that “the process of translating these principles into concrete practice will, of course, require time and experience.”

The group, overseen by interim Harvard Provost John F. Manning ’82 and led by Feldman and Philosophy professor Alison J. Simmons, came to the conclusion in less than two months that Harvard officials should default to not making statements, although the University had been planning the effort to consider institutional neutrality since at least February.

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Though the report will serve as a document that Garber and future University leaders can refer to when they are pressured to release a public statement, the report’s carefully worded language also provides administrators with enough flexibility to issue statements when they deem necessary to do so.

While administrators should not make statements on behalf of the University regarding external events, the statement clarified that some centers and clinics which advocate specific policies should continue to do so, but should not “purport to speak on behalf of the university or beyond their domain expertise” or “extend their zone of expertise unreasonably.”

The institutional voice group is the first of four task forces deployed by Garber to address controversies surrounding the University to issue recommendations. While the co-chairs of the task forces to address antisemitism and anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bias said they would release their recommendations in the spring, the groups later pushed their timeline to the fall.

Implementing an effective statement of neutrality is Garber’s first major policy change since he clarified protest rules and restrictions in January. The relative speed of the working group’s deliberations suggests that the policy to refrain from statements enjoyed broad support from the University’s stakeholders.

The statement notably does not address decisions surrounding University investment and divestment decisions, the issue at the heart of a wave of pro-Palestine campus protests and a 20-day encampment in Harvard Yard.

In 2020, then-Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow committed the University to gradually phasing out its investment in fossil fuels on the grounds that “climate change is a defining issue of our time.” At an April 30 town hall meeting, Garber told faculty that divesting from weapons manufacturing was different from fossil fuels because there was less of a consensus around that issue.

“There is a big difference between an issue in which there is close to unanimity about whether or not we should invest in an asset class, which was the case around fossil fuels, and the situation we are in now,” Garber said, according to a transcript from an attendee.

Feldman said the working group did not consider financial decisions a “statement in words” and that the University could still choose to divest under the new policy.

“It’s totally appropriate for the University to explain its position on investment or divestment,” Feldman said. “But we don’t think that our recommendations on institutional voice dictate an answer.”

“That's an independent decision for the University,” he added.

Institutional neutrality became a serious topic of conversation in October, with many affiliates pointing to the University of Chicago’s 1967 Kalven report as a model to avoid future controversy.

Feldman said that because the Kalven report is more than 50 years old, it does not accurately reflect “the way that that issue ought to be considered today.”

“Most people today don't believe that it's possible or desirable for a university to be genuinely neutral,” Feldman said. “The University, just by its mere existence, and by doing the things it does, is necessarily invested in certain non-neutral beliefs and values.”

“The University is not value neutral,” Feldman added.

—Staff writer Emma H. Haidar can be reached at emma.haidar@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @HaidarEmma.

—Staff writer Cam E. Kettles can be reached at cam.kettles@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @cam_kettles or on Threads @camkettles.

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