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In big win for campus free speech, Harvard won’t issue statements on hot-button social and political issues

The policy change could spark similar reforms throughout higher education. Where Harvard leads, others follow.
Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library at Harvard University lit up at night

Charles Huang /

Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library at Harvard University.

In a refreshing turn of events, Harvard University officially announced on Tuesday that neither the school nor its leaders will “issue official statements about public matters that do not directly affect the university’s core function.” 

University leadership — including its highest governing board, the Harvard Corporation — accepted this recommendation and others from a Harvard faculty working group report.

Harvard’s “core function,” the report states, is to “cultivate an environment in which its members can research, teach, and learn.” To succeed, the university must commit “itself to the values of free inquiry, intellectual expertise, and productive argument among divergent points of view.”

Harvard has adopted principles of institutional neutrality similar to those described in the University of Chicago’s “Kalven Report” — which FIRE officially endorsed last fall. As FIRE explains, institutional neutrality is “the idea that colleges and universities should not, as institutions, take positions on social and political issues unless those issues ‘threaten the very mission of the university and its values of free inquiry.’ Instead, these discussions should be left to students and faculty.”

And while some quibble with the use of the word “neutrality” in this context, we have argued that if the principles remain the same — and in this case, they do — that’s all that matters

For better or worse, what Harvard does, others follow. 

Harvard’s report was drafted by the Institutional Voice Working Group, a task force of Harvard faculty charged with determining when and if Harvard should take public positions on contentious political and social issues. In formulating its report, the group fielded the input of more than 1,000 faculty members, students, staff, and alumni via focus groups, an online poll, and email suggestions and comments.

The group gives three primary reasons for its recommendation:

First, the integrity and credibility of the institution are compromised when the university speaks officially on matters outside its institutional area of expertise. Faculty members, speaking for themselves, have expertise in their respective domains of knowledge, and they may often speak about what they know. In so doing, however, they do not speak for the university.

[ . . . ]

Second, if the university and its leaders become accustomed to issuing official statements about matters beyond the core function of the university, they will inevitably come under intense pressure to do so from multiple, competing sides on nearly every imaginable issue of the day.

[ . . . ]

Third, if the university adopts an official position on an issue beyond its core function, it will be understood to side with one perspective or another on that issue. Given the diversity of viewpoints within the university, choosing a side, or appearing to do so can undermine the inclusivity of the university community.

According to an email sent to the Harvard community, interim president Alan M. Garber, interim provost John F. Manning, executive vice president Meredith Weenick, the university’s deans, and the Harvard Corporation all accepted the working group’s recommendations. And while the email noted that “the process of translating these principles into concrete practice will, of course, require time and experience,” it emphasized that they “look forward to the work ahead.”

Importantly, the report makes clear that while Harvard’s leaders may “feel empathy for those affected by events of great moment, whether wars, natural disasters, or different forms of persecution,” which are “likely to affect someone in our community personally,” they must recognize that “issuing official empathy statements runs the risk of alienating some members of the community by expressing implicit solidarity with others.” As a result, the report recommends a different approach:

The most compassionate course of action is therefore not to issue official statements of empathy. Instead, the university should continue and expand the efforts of its pastoral arms in the different schools and residential houses to support affected community members. It must dedicate resources to training staff most directly in contact with affected community members. These concrete actions should prove, in the end, more effective and meaningful than public statements.

Harvard has had issues with free speech for many years. It scored last in FIRE’s 2024 College Free Speech Rankings, and FIRE has made many appeals to the university to preserve and promote the principles of free expression on its campus. 

We sent a letter to former president Claudine Gay at the beginning of her tenure in August 2023, in hopes that the school could turn around under her leadership. After Gay’s testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Education and the Workforce anti-Semitism hearing and subsequent resignation, FIRE once again called for much-needed reform. We also formed a campaign to petition Harvard to improve its policies on free speech and academic freedom, and we supported various suggestions for reform from Harvard luminaries such as FIRE advisor Steven Pinker and others.

Given all this effort, as well as the stakes for free speech on campus being so high, we are thrilled at the news from Harvard today. But that’s not the only reason.

FIRE’s actions regarding Harvard were all part of our larger mission to improve free speech, academic freedom, and free inquiry at American colleges across the board over the last 25 years — most recently through “FIRE’s 10 common-sense reforms for colleges and universities,” our Open Letter to College and University Trustees and Regents pushing for institutional neutrality, and more.

But few things work as well as America’s most prestigious university leading by example.

For better or worse, what Harvard does, others follow. The principles outlined in the Institutional Voice Working Group’s report don’t just bode well for Harvard’s future on free speech and academic freedom — they may also signal a significant sea change in colleges across the country.

FIRE will keep a hopeful eye on the goings on at Harvard. And as always, we will continue to promote, preserve, and protect free speech and academic freedom on college campuses everywhere in the meantime.

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