Free speech at Harvard

February 25, 2009

ONE OF THE elections I’m fascinated with this year is for . . . Harvard’s Board of Overseers.

Why, you say, should we non-Harvard types care about an election for the lesser of Harvard’s two governing boards? Because two outspoken candidates are trying to storm the gates, arguing that the storied university needs to embrace free speech unambiguously, reform its disciplinary procedures, and focus more on its students.

And because what happens at Harvard doesn’t stay at Harvard, but rather reverberates throughout the academic world.

As co-founder of The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Cambridge lawyer and writer Harvey Silverglate, a 1967 graduate of Harvard Law School, is a leading watchdog for free speech on college campuses. Well-respected Philadelphia attorney Robert Freedman, a 1962 graduate of Harvard College, sees himself as an ombudsman for the students, saying Harvard needs to do better by them – even if that means requiring more of the faculty.

Running as petition candidates for slots usually won by aspirants nominated by the alumni association, they say that the low-profile board needs to grow a spine, find a voice, and develop some investigatory zeal.

"Harvard needs a free-thinking, pro-active board of overseers, but the successful and talented people who become overseers seem to lose their independent judgment and spirit of inquiry upon election," says Freedman.

"We are talking about changing the culture of the way the university is governed," says Silverglate.

Long an opponent of nebulous anti-harassment or civility codes that essentially let students be punished for comments if someone else takes offense, Silverglate is particularly concerned with reestablishing a robust climate of free speech and academic freedom at Harvard.

"They have redefined harassment to include any speech that somebody doesn’t want to hear," he says, adding that the overseers should declare unacceptable any restrictions that limit academic freedom or curtail speech that would be protected off campus.

Having represented numerous students who have run afoul of Harvard’s Administrative (read: disciplinary) Board, he’s scathing about the process.

"It has become totally irrational, unfair, uninterested in seeking facts, and not geared to finding out the truth," he says, noting that the board has no student representatives and doesn’t allow the accused to call witnesses. "And yet, you just never hear a word from the overseers about this utter outrage."

Any discussion of the intellectual climate at Harvard inevitably comes back to former president Lawrence Summers and the faculty backlash – and no-confidence vote – touched off by his 2005 suggestion that innate differences between the sexes could help explain why men have been more successful in science and math careers. That controversy was the beginning of the end for Summers, who resigned in February of 2006.

Both men think the faculty’s intolerance for an uncongenial idea was a troubling episode for a great university.

"In the academic world you’re supposed to have the opportunity and the ability and the situation where you can talk about things, discuss them, bring up new ideas, bring up controversial ideas," says Freedman.

"What it showed was that the faculty had become very rigid and narrow-minded and was basically looking for the head of the president because he said something controversial that bothered them," says Silverglate.

Concerned that Harvard students be broadly educated, Freedman thinks the faculty has indulged its interest in the arcane at the expense of students’ educational needs. "They want to teach more and more about less and less," he says. "There are literally thousands of courses, but they are getting narrower and narrower. There are very few broad survey courses."

Both men think Harvard should allow the Reserve Officers Training Corps back on campus on the grounds of student choice. Harvard has banned ROTC from campus since 1969.

These two are energetic and provocative – and committed to asking the kind of questions Harvard needs to confront. Ballots go out in April to Harvard alums. Should Freedman and Silverglate win seats on the board, it would do Harvard, and the larger academic universe, a world of good.

Schools: Harvard University