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Accountability Guidelines Should Apply to All

By Aiyana G. White
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

We have spilled plenty of ink on how and when Harvard should engage in politics on a national scale, arguing that some statements which appear political in the context of our troubled times are really deeper moral stances, and we’ve encouraged Harvard to look past the political to consistently embrace the moral. A recent open letter, which calls on Harvard to develop accountability guidelines for inviting former members of President Donald J. Trump’s administration to campus, offers one model of this engagement. And though we appreciate that the letter calls attention to vitally important questions, we do not believe that a set of guidelines tailored narrowly to the Trump administration addresses the full scope of the issue. Furthermore, we are unconvinced that singling out a particular administration, even one we have criticized as regularly as this one, is the most productive approach for the long term.

First, to clarify some popular misconceptions: the open letter does not say that all Trump officials should be completely barred from becoming affiliated with Harvard, and pearl-clutching, dramatic attempts to garner pity, outrage, or even just attention by claiming otherwise and decrying the wild, unthinking, unnuanced illiberalism of Harvard’s progressive wing are hogwash, plain and simple. On planet reality, the letter calls for the development of accountability guidelines for high-level Trump appointees. But even so, the letter’s apparent intent to create a unique set of guidelines for former Trump administration officials feels improper. To be sure, among White Houses, this administration is unprecedented in its attempts to undermine and overturn the recent presidential election, and over the past four years, many of its policies have negatively impacted students — however, the Trump administration certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on immorality.

The letter does, however, raise an important point about the need for the University to vet all potential affiliates. Creating standards for who Harvard should hire or invite — regardless of who they are or who they support — would safeguard against impropriety among those who are allowed to distribute knowledge under the banner of “Veritas.” To be clear, this is not a partisan issue. In Harvard’s long history, it has welcomed some respectable conservative professors and speakers in the past, and some not-so-wonderful liberal ones as well. The Psychology Department visiting fellowship of convicted sex offender and charged sex trafficker Jeffrey E. Epstein is a prime example of what may happen when the University fails to do this. But, to the best of our knowledge, it is not written anywhere that immorality like this disqualifies someone from an invitation.

With this framework in mind, when the University considers Trump affiliates, it should not bar them, but nor should it grant them impunity. It seems obvious to us that officials involved in Trump’s attempt to overturn the results of the presidential election should be scrutinized carefully for their actions — but that doesn’t mean they should be entirely prohibited from invitations either.

When inviting speakers, the choices should be explicitly linked to what the Harvard community can gain from hearing the individual speak — the University or a given department should be able to clearly articulate what the speaker adds to the conversation. Further, this person must be committed to good-faith and open-minded discourse. That means tolerating and listening to conservative opinions, but it also means treating profound moral challenges raised by committed progressives as serious considerations, not the all-consuming din of an incoherent mob.

We’ll admit that establishing these “moral guidelines” is easier said than done. It would require us all to agree on what is egregious enough to disqualify a potential affiliate, and that’s tricky. But when we’re talking about who gets to disseminate knowledge on a stage as large as Harvard’s, these discussions are certainly worth having. Ensuring that professors, fellows, and speakers at Harvard will contribute positively to our community is an admirable goal, but it will not be achieved by creating a unique set of guidelines to apply a single administration.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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