USA

Opinion | Harvard Should Say Less. Maybe All Schools Should.

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

In brief, the report says that university leaders can and should speak out publicly to promote and protect the core function of the university, which is to create an environment suitable for pursuing truth through research, scholarship and teaching. If, for example, Donald Trump presses forward with his announced plan to take “billions and billions of dollars” from large university endowments to create an “American Academy” — a free, online school that would provide an “alternative” to current institutions — Harvard’s leadership can and should express its objections to this terrible idea.

It makes sense for university leaders to speak out on matters concerning the core function of the institution: That is their area of expertise as presidents, provosts and deans. But they should not, the report says, take official stands on other matters. They should not, for instance, issue statements of solidarity with Ukraine after Russia’s invasion, no matter how morally attractive or even correct that sentiment might be.

In addition, the report says, university leaders should make it clear to the public that when students and faculty members exercise their academic freedom to speak, they aren’t speaking on behalf of the university as a whole. The president doesn’t have to repeat this point with regard to every utterance made by the thousands of members of the university. But the university should clarify repeatedly, for as long as it takes to establish the point, that only its leadership can speak officially on its behalf.

This policy might remind some readers of the Kalven Report, a prominent statement of the value of academic “institutional neutrality” issued in 1967 by a University of Chicago committee chaired by the First Amendment scholar Harry Kalven Jr. But while our policy has some important things in common with the Kalven Report, which insisted that the university remain silently neutral on political and social issues, ours rests on different principles and has some different implications.

The principle behind our policy isn’t neutrality. Rather, our policy commits the university to an important set of values that drive the intellectual pursuit of truth: open inquiry, reasoned debate, divergent viewpoints and expertise. An institution committed to these values isn’t neutral, and shouldn’t be. It has to fight for its values, particularly when they are under attack, as they are now. Speaking publicly is one of the tools a university can use in that fight.