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Harvard Faculty Slam Social Science Dean’s Proposal to Limit Faculty Speech

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Updated June 18, 2024, at 12:30 p.m.

Several Harvard faculty members blasted Dean of Social Science Lawrence D. Bobo for suggesting certain faculty speech should face “sanctionable limits” and argued that his proposals would restrict academic freedom.

Bobo argued in a Friday op-ed that some faculty members should face penalties from Harvard’s administration for issuing statements that incite external intervention into the University, singling out former Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers for his fierce condemnation of Claudine Gay’s initial response to the Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

Bobo’s op-ed comes as Harvard weathers political attacks, including a monthslong congressional investigation and threats to its federal funding — a campaign which has seized on criticisms lodged by the University’s own faculty, including Summers. Meanwhile, the end of the semester was marked by student protests over the war in Gaza, culminating in a pro-Palestine encampment in Harvard Yard and a walkout at Commencement.

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Bobo took aim at Summers — who has charged Harvard with allowing rampant antisemitism and accused its top brass of mishandling the leadership crisis last winter — for his role as one of the University’s highest-profile critics.

In an emailed statement, Summers denounced Bobo’s op-ed as a threat to free speech on campus.

“I am stunned that a Harvard dean would call for censoring or censuring any faculty member’s comments on university affairs,” Summers wrote. “This would be an obvious intrusion on academic freedom.”

Former Harvard Medical School dean Jeffrey S. Flier — who is a co-president of the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard — wrote in a Saturday post on X that Bobo’s op-ed “raises serious questions about his view of academic freedom.”

Bobo’s piece also drew widespread indignation from faculty at other universities and internet commentators, many of whom claimed it displayed a dangerous willingness to suppress speech.

In a statement, Bobo distanced the views in his op-ed from his official role but did not address the criticisms levied against his argument.

“The Crimson Op-ed expresses my personal views as a member of the faculty, seeking to put important questions before the wider Harvard community,” he wrote.

Though both Flier and Summers are prominent critics of pro-Palestine protesters, their anger at Bobo’s op-ed has united them with the students’ faculty supporters, who also came under fire in the piece.

Bobo wrote that he thought it was “extremely problematic” for faculty to advocate for civil disobedience among students after they had been notified that their actions violate University rules.

That was a direct rebuke to many of his colleagues in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Members of the group Harvard Faculty and Staff for Justice in Palestine attended the Harvard Yard encampment in four-hour shifts, including overnight, during its first few days, and extended their support as the occupation continued. Later, a separate group of faculty was instrumental in facilitating conversations between protesters and interim University President Alan M. Garber ’76.

After the Harvard College Administrative Board voted to sanction more than two dozen encampment participants — resulting in the denial of degrees to 13 seniors who were slated to graduate this spring — the FAS voted to add the seniors’ names back to the list of recommended graduates. Harvard’s governing boards rejected the FAS’ recommendations, but the unprecedented standoff showed that many faculty were willing to go to bat for students they believed had been unfairly penalized.

Bobo’s op-ed doesn’t lay down University policy, but for many of his critics — some of whom serve as faculty members in the division he leads — Bobo’s personal opinions proved hard to separate from his position in FAS administration.

Classics professor Richard F. Thomas, a member of FSJP, wrote in an email that he thought it was “an urgent question as to whether his suggestion that faculty speech be curtailed has some sort of administrative imprimatur.”

Summers urged Garber and FAS Dean Hopi E. Hoekstra to publicly rebuff Bobo’s recommendations.

“I trust Dean Hoekstra and President Garber will make clear that Dean Bobo is not speaking for the FAS or the University,” Summers wrote.

“As Professor Bobo has indicated in his statement, the views expressed in the op-ed placed in The Crimson are his own and do not represent a position of Harvard University,” University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain wrote in a statement.

Zach Greenberg — who serves as the faculty legal defense counsel for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression — said that penalizing speech intended to “incite external actors” could create a chilling effect because faculty might be unable to predict the public response to their statements.

“Because of the vagueness of this restriction, and because of its potential to be abused by administrators, professors would justifiably self-censor rather than bring up good-faith allegations of wrongdoing with their institution,” he said.

Greenberg argued that faculty are often the best positioned to criticize their universities because they see, and reckon with, the institutions’ flaws up close.

Greenberg also objected to Bobo’s suggestion that faculty should face sanctions for supporting rule-breaking student protests.

“Under the First Amendment free speech standards that Harvard agrees to follow within their policies, faculty members have the right to advocate for unlawful behavior or for civil disobedience or even for violence,” he said.

History professor Walter Johnson, who served as a police liaison for encampment participants, took a jaded view of Bobo’s suggestions.

“It all feels a bit like Harry Potter 5 where Dolores Umbridge takes charge at Hogwarts,” Johnson wrote in an email. “Every time I turn around some member of the administration is posting or proposing some set of new rules.”

—Staff writer Neil H. Shah contributed reporting.

—Staff writer Tilly R. Robinson can be reached at tilly.robinson@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @tillyrobin.

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