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Original Harvard blacklist committee: How can we make this worse?

Marcio Jose Bastos Silva/

FIRE has painstakingly covered the proposed sanctions at Harvard that would blacklist members of single-gender organizations such as fraternities, sororities, and “final clubs,” barring them from leadership positions and prestigious programs like the Marshall and Rhodes Scholarships. These proposed sanctions eviscerate Harvard students’ freedom of association. FIRE said as much in an open letter earlier this month to the Harvard community printed as a full-page ad in The Harvard Crimson. This proposal is so egregious that it also earned Harvard an entry in our 2017 list of the “10 Worst Schools for Free Speech”. We even detailed how these sanctions fit into a historical pattern at Harvard and asked if the new sanctions would be like the “Secret Court” of 1920 that sought to find and punish gay men and their associates, or Harvard’s 50s-era collaboration with McCarthyites to root out communists and their associates from campus.

If that seems like a lot to you, believe us, we really wish we could stop covering this car wreck. Unfortunately, Harvard keeps driving towards the wall. And what we bring you today is something as disturbing as any of that.

Buckle up, folks, because this ride is getting even bumpier.

On Jan. 26, 2017, Dean Rakesh Khurana and President Drew Gilpin Faust announced that the intended sanctions would be “revised or replaced” by a brand new committee comprised of students, faculty, and administrators. This new committee’s formation apparently came as a complete surprise to the earlier implementation committee formed in September 2016, which delivered its own report on the matter only two days previously. We wondered why Harvard would do this so suddenly, and why Harvard never made public any of the recommendations from the implementation committee, speculating:

“It’s entirely possible that the new committee was empaneled because the recommendations from the implementation committee were too appalling to implement.”

That turned out to be prescient.

A Crimson article published last night gives some early details about the unfolding and completely predictable disaster wrought by Harvard’s full-on assault on freedom of association. And how draconian were the implementation committee’s recommendations? To give you an idea: It decided that the restrictions Faust and Khurana proposed were not draconian enough. Indeed, the new proposals were so absurd that the committee treated its own report like a highly classified document, physically restricting access to it and refusing to provide even committee members with a copy.

We’ll see your blacklist and raise you a super-blacklist

The implementation committee recommended that beyond denying students the Dean’s recommendation required to apply to the Rhodes, Marshall, and Schwarzman scholarships, members of single-gender organizations should be “barred from several more post-graduate fellowships.” Because why stop screwing with blacklisted students after they’ve graduated? One can only guess how they were going to do this. Maybe by calling the programs and warning them that the student applying had committed the unforgivable crime of throwing a “Headbands for Hope” charity fundraiser with Kappa Kappa Gamma?

The committee further recommended blacklisted students be ineligible to run for the Undergraduate Council, Harvard’s student government.

What is more democratic than a secret, authoritarian body telling you who you can’t vote for? There’s nothing troubling about that at all!

But wait, there’s more! The committee would also reverse a previous statement by Dean Khurana and bar blacklisted students from leadership of The Crimson, which the Crimson notes “is editorially, organizationally, and financially independent from Harvard College.” (If the Crimson continues to claim immunity from the policy because of its independence from the school, will its members be added to the blacklist too?)

To sum it up: Harvard administrators would purport to dictate who could lead an independent student newspaper, who students could vote for in their student government, and who could hire graduates of the university.

Between these indefensible recommendations and the immense pressure from the upcoming faculty vote on a nondiscrimination policy that would conflict with the blacklist, we can only imagine the Harvard administration’s state of mind two days before Dean Khurana announced the new committee. But KC Green’s popular webcomic probably sums it up better than we can in words.

And the next part of this absurd story indicates that the odds are good that the committee knew how well its “implementation” was likely to be received.

Quadruple secret probation (emphasis on the ‘secret’)

The Crimson story also highlights the paranoia and secrecy with which the implementation committee operated. Members of the committee were not furnished physical copies of the policy they were working on. They had to make arrangements to physically inspect drafts of the report in an administration building and offer their comments.

For what conceivable legitimate purpose would a college disciplinary policy draft need to be treated as a classified, eyes-only document? These aren’t the movements of ships in wartime.

We have a good guess as to why. (And as you saw above, we’re really good at guessing.)

Harvard was afraid that the new sanctions-on-steroids regime would leak to faculty, students, the public, and FIRE, and profoundly damage the regime’s public support. Harvard calculated that if it could keep the details secret until the last possible minute, it would give students and faculty too little time to do anything about it. And Harvard administrators really, really do not like embarrassing leaks. We’re talking a “we’ll-inspect-faculty-members’-emails-without-their-knowledge” level of hating leaks.

As FIRE often says, colleges cannot defend in public what they do in private. We are grateful that students on the committee were willing to make this information public. And we think they are very wise to have chosen to do so anonymously, because the kind of petty authoritarians who make these kinds of rules tend to really resent those who let in the sunlight.

It seems extremely unlikely that Dean Khurana just coincidentally announced the new panel two days after he was handed these recommendations. He probably saw these recommendations, was aghast, realized the faculty vote was nigh and that they would never go for this, and got a new group. We hope that this new panel sees how completely bonkers these sanctions are, and how ridiculous-yet-inevitable the implementation committee’s intended overreach was.

More details from the report are likely to be exposed eventually, even if Harvard never lets it out from under lock and key. But there’s no escaping the fact that when it comes to violating something as fundamental as freedom of association, colleges are going to find themselves on a very precarious ledge. Even if the administrators of today were uniformly well-intentioned, the very same measures could be used down the road for something worse. Perhaps you trust President Faust and Dean Khurana today. Do you trust the judgment of whoever might run Harvard in 10 or 20 years?

Once a principle is abandoned to target some people, it’s weakened or abandoned for everyone. The committee’s proposed expansion of the blacklist is a good example of how it can, and will, be abused. The only safe and liberal answer is to respect the freedom of association of all students.

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