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The bell tolls for Harvard President Drew Faust — not the Liberty Bell!

World Economic Forum from Cologny, Switzerland, The Future of Higher Education Drew Gilpin Faust, William D. Green (8410821795), size by FIRE, CC BY-SA 2.0

This classic FIRE headline marks the news, which broke Wednesday, that Drew Gilpin Faust will be stepping down as president of Harvard University next year.

Faust’s decade-long tenure as president has frequently seen the institution set at odds both with FIRE and its own promises to students. A quick and non-exhaustive rundown includes:

  • In 2008, Harvard threatened to cancel a party planned by two Latino student groups because the party was to be called “Barely Legal.” In response to a letter from FIRE, Harvard claimed that it would and should spend time policing party themes because the party was to be held in the Adams House dining hall and therefore “necessarily carries an endorsement of the event by the House.” It was a strange argument that, if taken seriously, lent the official imprimatur of the nearly 400-year-old institution to such party themes as “S&M bingo,” “Erotica Night,” and “Chocoholica.”
  • In 2011, Harvard fired an Indian economics professor over a newspaper column about Indian politics that was published in an Indian newspaper, prompting another letter from FIRE. The professor is now a member of India’s parliament.
  • In 2012, Harvard pressured its students to sign a nebulous “kindness pledge” by announcing its plan to post the signatures of those who signed in each dormitory (while those who did not would be conspicuously absent).
  • Also in 2012, Harvard petulantly used trademark law to prohibit Yale students from making shirts featuring the names of famous Harvard dropouts that were to be worn at a Harvard-Yale football game. The dual controversies earned Harvard a spot on our annual list of the worst schools for free speech.
  • In 2013, it came to light that Harvard had been spying on its faculty’s emails to determine which faculty member leaked embarrassing (yet truthful) information about a cheating scandal to the media. This spying, which was both creepy and apparently a violation of Harvard’s own policies, landed them on our 2013 list of the worst schools for free speech.
  • After a two-year lull, Harvard returned to unfortunate form in 2016, when Harvard Law School approved the repeated vigilante censorship of a student’s political posters. It also forbade him from using those posters to compare his political opponents to Donald Trump. Even after he complied with this unjustifiable restriction, the law school made zero effort to stop his critics from continuing to pull down his posters in favor of their own.

But none of the above caused controversy on par with what happened in May 2016, when President Faust and Dean of Harvard College Rakesh Khurana announced the now-famous blacklist policy, which, starting with next fall’s class, will place sanctions on members of independent single-gender social organizations, including fraternities, sororities, and final clubs. The sanctions would effectively end freedom of association at Harvard. The policy prompted a letter from FIRE, a return to FIRE’s list of the worst schools for free speech, and many articles about the lack of transparency and accountability with which it has advanced.

FIRE took out a full-page ad in The Harvard Crimson’s commencement edition aimed at highlighting the policy and asking Harvard’s alumni and soon-to-be-alumni to vote with their wallets and speak out against the policy.

We were bemused and befuddled when, at that very commencement, President Faust gave a rousing defense of free speech. We praised her address and pled with her to walk the walk by working to transform Harvard into an institution where free speech is protected by action, rather than by empty platitudes.

Our regret for that measured praise could scarcely have come faster. Less than two weeks later, we learned that Harvard had rescinded admission offers to ten students after they shared joke images many found offensive. The memes were shared on a private Facebook group chat created for the purpose of sharing such jokes, but were leaked and made public, after which Harvard took action.

A week after that, and at the end of a year marred by criticism, Faust announced she will be stepping down at the end of next year. In an email to students and alumni, a representative of the Harvard Corporation (the organization that serves as Harvard’s board of trustees) wrote of President Faust’s “strong aversion to labeling people, her belief that Harvard must honor both inclusion and individuality, and her insistence that every person who is a member of this community knows and feels that he or she belongs, that ‘they, too, are Harvard.’”

In the course of fighting for free association at Harvard, we have had the opportunity to speak with a number of Harvard community members who chose to belong to single-sex sororities, fraternities, and final clubs. These organizations are now considered so loathsome that, under the policy put in place by President Faust and Dean Khurana, any new members (or those simply accused of being members) will face a closed hearing to determine whether or not they are members of those organizations, and, if determined to be so, will be declared officially unfit to lead recognized student organizations, to be Rhodes or Marshall scholars, or to take a postgraduate fellowship at Harvard regardless of the merits of their work.

It should come as no surprise that President Faust’s tenure has failed to leave these students and alumni with the impression that “they, too, are Harvard.” While we understand that President Faust may have many merits, and that it’s customary to say kind words upon the departure of a university leader, we hope that the Harvard Corporation has not been fooled into thinking that her efforts in the area of inclusion have been marked by uniform success.

It is FIRE’s hope that the blacklist policy will be abandoned before President Faust’s departure. If not, we hope that President Faust’s successor will commit to ending the illiberal sanctions and to reforming an institutional disposition that has allowed for so many attacks on its students’ and faculty’s academic freedom and personal liberty. Harvard has a lot of ground to cover in order to live up to the example it should be setting for the rest of America’s colleges and universities.

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