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Nearly 250 Harvard Affiliates Sign ‘Free Speech’ Petition Addressed to University Presidential Search Committee

Harvard's governing boards meet in Loeb House.
Harvard's governing boards meet in Loeb House. By Truong L. Nguyen
By J. Sellers Hill and Leah J. Teichholtz, Crimson Staff Writers

Nearly 250 Harvard affiliates signed onto a petition this month calling on the University's Presidential Search Committee to nominate a candidate who “actively affirms the importance of free speech” on campus.

Signatories of the petition, which was addressed to the search committee and Penny S. Pritzker ’81 — the committee’s leader and the senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation — hid their names from the public, though organizers said names would be disclosed to the committee.

More than 200 students, 31 alums, and 11 faculty members signed the letter, per a copy of the petition viewed by The Crimson.

“Harvard’s mission to ‘educate citizens and citizen-leaders’ depends on an environment of open inquiry and criticism,” the petition reads. “But unless the next President shows a firm commitment to protecting free speech at Harvard, that environment will continue to contract.”

The petition alleges free speech protections provided by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ Free Speech Guidelines, adopted in 1990, have “often been curtailed,” leading to a “climate of repression.”

Victoria T. Li ’25, a co-organizer of the petition, said she felt the letter was necessitated by a “lack of dialogue” on campus.

“It’s undeniable that we have a culture at Harvard that doesn’t encourage free exchange of ideas in classrooms,” Li said.

Harvard University spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment on the petition.

The petition cites examples of what the authors described as a “hostility to speech” at Harvard, including backlash against Human Evolutionary Biology lecturer Carole K. Hooven in 2021. During an appearance on a Fox News show, Hooven maintained that only two biological sexes exist and criticized rising pressure for medical school professors to use gender-neutral vocabulary.

According to the petition, Harvard’s intellectual climate has produced “negative and severe” effects on its reputation.

“A Harvard degree is increasingly associated with emotional and intellectual fragility; some employers have even forsworn hiring Harvard graduates,” the petition reads, citing a Wall Street Journal op-ed written by the editor of a conservative religious journal. “Harvard cannot retain the world’s respect if it is seen as an intellectual environment in which dissent from orthodoxy is punished.”

The letter also alleges Harvard’s mandatory Title IX training stifles speech by stressing the role that factors such as gender, age, and size-based discrimination play in perpetuating sexual violence.

“These concerns are certainly understandable,” the petition reads. “But since virtually every proposition about the human condition, whether from the humanities, social sciences, or biomedical sciences, could be construed as unflattering to one group or another, and hence a ‘-phobia’ or ‘system of harm,’ this stigmatization can only discourage honest inquiry.”

The Title IX training figure referenced by the petition, titled the “Power and Control Wheel,” intends to draw attention to modes of discrimination that can produce adverse power dynamics, including ageism, xenophobia, classism, and transphobia.

Shira Z. Hoffer ’25, who signed the petition, said she agreed with the central message of the petition but wished it had further condemned offensive speech.

“It’s unfortunate that free speech has become a buzzword, because I think it’s kind of contrasted with the idea of a safe space,” Hoffer said. “I think that both are possible and important.”

Co-organizer Jacob A. Cremers ’23-’24, who publicized the petition to Harvard undergraduates, said he and Li hid signatories' names to protect those concerned about backlash.

“The potential negatives of signing it are huge. The negatives of not signing it are nothing,” Cremers said. “The positives of signing it are potentially zero — unless they really believe in the cause.”

Hoffer said she believes backlash is a “really legitimate concern,” but said it is “somewhat ironic” that signatories are not taking “ownership of their beliefs.”

Harvey C. Mansfield ’53, a Harvard professor of government, said he signed the petition to target the “fundamental” need for free speech on campus.

“That’s something that liberals and conservatives can agree on,” Mansfield said. “The woke administration that we’ve seen, of politicization and aggressive intolerance — it is something that needs to be replaced.”

Cremers said the organizers plan to send the petition to the Presidential Search Committee by the end of the fall semester.

—Staff writer J. Sellers Hill can be reached at sellers.hill@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @SellersHill.

—Staff writer Leah J. Teichholtz can be reached at leah.teichholtz@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @LeahTeichholtz.

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