In Unprecedented, Ill-Considered Move, Harvard Pressures Freshmen to Sign Civility Pledge

By September 1, 2011

Administrators at Harvard College are pressuring the Class of 2015 to do something no other student class has ever been asked to do in 375 years: Sign a civility pledge.

As the Harvard Crimson details in a story this morning, the "Class of 2015 Freshman Pledge" was presented to students before an opening convocation. Harry Lewis, former Dean of Harvard College and current Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science, has published the full text of the Pledge:

At Commencement, the Dean of Harvard College announces to the President, Fellows, and Overseers that "each degree candidate stands ready to advance knowledge, to promote understanding, and to serve society." That message serves as a kind of moral compass for the education Harvard College imparts. In the classroom, in extracurricular endeavors, and in the Yard and Houses, students are expected to act with integrity, respect, and industry, and to sustain a community characterized by inclusiveness and civility.

As we begin at Harvard, we commit to upholding the values of the College and to making the entryway and Yard a place where all can thrive and where the exercise of kindness holds a place on a par with intellectual attainment.

Although signing the pledge is technically voluntary, the Crimson reports that many proctors (Harvard’s version of resident advisors, typically graduate students) are posting signed pledges publicly within residence area entryways. A freshman’s name either has a signature next to it or does not. Thus everyone, including the proctors—who possess a certain measure of disciplinary power—will know who has pledged fidelity to Harvard College’s official morality and who has not. Indeed, the signed pledges are reportedly being framed—apparently so that they last all year. What will happen if a student changes her mind?

The Crimson quotes Dean of Freshmen Thomas Dingman for an explanation as to why the College is pressuring students to commit to what is essentially a civility oath:

"The most important thing was to get our values out. Things like respect, integrity, kindness," Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman ’67 said. "We want to have an environment in which people can flourish academically."

Dingman said that the introduction of the pledge was motivated not by a specific incident, but by growing concerns that some Harvard students are not "thoughtful or considerate in their actions with their peers."

Dingman’s explanation is entirely unsatisfactory and raises more questions than it answers. If Harvard seeks to create "an environment in which people can flourish academically," why is it instituting a civility oath that will surely chill academic debate and discourage students from asking tough questions that some might find "disrespectful"?

And while administrators tell the Crimson that the "2015 pledge is not an early attempt at an informal honor code," how can students freshly arrived at Harvard perceive it as anything but precisely such a code, particularly when signed copies are being publicly posted in residences?

Former Dean Lewis raises these crucial questions and more in a must-read entry on his blog Bits and Pieces:

An appeal for kindness is entirely appropriate. Apparently there has been too little of it in the Yard sometimes. But for Harvard to "invite" people to pledge to kindness is unwise, and sets a terrible precedent.

First of all, it would be a precedent. Of course, students regularly commit themselves to pledges and oaths at the behest of student and national organizations. But I am unaware of another instance in which the university itself has asked all students to sign a pledge. In fact, Harvard has a deep and ancient antipathy to pledges and oaths. The Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison, writing on pages 339-341 of The Founding of Harvard College, describes how remarkable it was that Harvard did not, in any of its founding documents, follow the practice of its British ancestors in requiring a religious oath of its students. "Our founders knew from their English experience," Morrison writes, "that oaths are powerless to bind conscience. … Accordingly this academic vessel was provided with the barest possible code of statutes, and her master and crew, unhampered by oaths and religious tests, were left to exercise their best judgment, as God gave it to them."

In more recent history, President Pusey raised his voice in 1959 to object to US legislation that would have demanded that certain scholarship recipients swear to uphold the Constitution. Loyalty oaths, even ones affirming unexceptionable principles, are, as Pusey put it, "odious."

But, it may be objected, no one is required to sign the freshman pledge. Its purpose is to make people think and to induce conversation on the important matter of civility and generosity. I am assured that the intention is not to make anyone feel compelled to sign the pledge.

In this case, alas, the line between an invitation and a compulsion is exceedingly narrow, and I doubt those who explain it to students can consistently do so with the required nuance. The pledge is delivered to students for signing by their proctors, the officers of the College who monitor their compliance with Harvard rules and report their malfeasances to the College’s disciplinary board. Nonconformists would have good reason to fear that they will be singled out for extra scrutiny. And their unsigned signature lines are hung for all to see, in an act of public shaming. Few students, in their first week at Harvard, would have the courage to refuse this invitation. I am not sure I would advise any student to do so. [Emphases added.]

Lewis quotes Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson’s landmark opinion in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette to explain why such a pledge is anti-intellectual and contrary to the core mission of one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious institutions of higher education:

The substance of the pledge is critically important. This is not a pledge to refrain from cheating, or to take out the garbage. It is not a pledge to act in a certain way. It is a pledge to think about the world a certain way, to hold precious the exercise of kindness. It is a promise to control one’s thoughts. Though it refers to sound institutional values affirmed at Commencement, the pledge pretends to affirm them not through the educational process to which the Dean testifies, but through a prior restraint on students’ freedom of thought. A student would be breaking the pledge if she woke up one morning and decided it was more important to achieve intellectually than to be kind.

On the face of it the pledge is so benign that one might reasonably accuse me of making a mountain out of a molehill. But the right to be annoying is precious, as is the right to think unkind thoughts. Harvard should not condone the sacrifice of rights to speech and thought simply because they can be inconvenient in a residential college. In the words of a U.S. Supreme Court decision in a case involving compulsory flag salutes, "Struggles to coerce uniformity of sentiment in support of some end thought essential to their time and country have been waged by many good as well as by evil men. … As first and moderate methods to attain unity have failed, those bent  on its accomplishment must resort to an ever-increasing severity. … Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard."

I want to stress that I concur with the ends. I do not condone rudeness or incivility in students, and I agree that the exercise of personal kindness in this community is too often wanting. But trying to get students to sign a pledge, in their first days on campus, is not the way to build a healthy community. After all, there is plenty of faculty rudeness too; why would we not ask the faculty to join in this communitarian commitment? The way to create a kind community is to model kindness, not to tell the most junior members they should be kind while not expecting others to meet the same standard. Who, except for our clerics, has urged kindness on the rest of the community? [Emphases added.]

We second Lewis’ objections, and we urge Harvard to reconsider its ill-advised imposition upon the Class of 2015′s freedoms of expression and conscience. It is not too late to abandon this regrettable effort and to take down the signed pledges. Doing so would avoid setting a dangerous precedent and would ensure that students may pursue intellectual stimulation wherever their studies take them, free from the worry that they might suffer as a result of their disagreement with the dean’s official interpretation of Harvard College’s values.

Schools: Harvard University