Across the country, the issue of academic freedom is dominating discourse in higher education.
The conversation is especially prominent at Harvard: In recent years on campus, affiliates have launched numerous groups and initiatives to identify and address issues around free idea exchange. Most recently, 70 faculty from across the University founded the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard — at the time of writing, membership is more than 120.
The overwhelming faculty response mirrors that of Harvard Alumni for Free Speech, an alumni-founded group that formed last year, complete with a website, advisory board, and 501(c)(3) nonprofit status.
The issue has attracted the attention of top administrators, too. Over the past two years, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana has periodically met with an “Intellectual Vitality Committee” — a small group of Harvard undergraduates, faculty, and alumni — to examine what they see as a lack of free idea exchange at the College. Earlier this year, the Committee even presented to the Board of Overseers — the University’s second-highest governing body.
Peer schools are grappling with the same issues. Earlier this year, Stanford University’s president and law school dean apologized to a conservative federal judge after he was shouted down by protesters.
At Cornell University, the president and provost rejected a proposal from the student government asking professors to put “trigger warnings” for certain course content, citing Cornell’s free speech policy and the “faculty’s fundamental right to determine what and how to teach.”
“The issue of academic freedom is a broad issue of education, especially higher education. It has been written about and understood for a long time,” said Jeffrey S. Flier, a former dean of Harvard Medical School and a co-president of CAFH.
According to a recent faculty survey conducted by The Crimson, approximately 75 percent of surveyed members of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences believe that academic freedom in America is under threat, compared to approximately 11 percent who believe it is not.
In the face of what many characterize as an academic freedom issue at Harvard, professors and students have created their own spaces for exchanging potentially controversial ideas. Nonetheless, they disagree on the stakes.
In an April 12 op-ed in the Boston Globe, Harvard professors Steven A. Pinker and Bertha K. Madras announced the formation of the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard.
“When an individual is threatened or slandered for a scholarly opinion, which can be emotionally devastating, we will lend our personal and professional support,” they wrote.
A major threat facing academic freedom, according to some professors, is a rise of self-censorship on campus.
“There’s been an abridgement of freedom of speech, not because of consciously censorious rulemaking or anything like that, but the climate around use of language is, in practice, socially, quite judgmental,” said Harry R. Lewis ’68, another CAFH co-president and former Harvard College dean.
“I think a lot of Harvard faculty and especially the Harvard students are afraid to speak their mind,” said Flynn J. Cratty, a History lecturer and CAFH’s executive director. “I think that that is actually corrosive to the academic endeavor. I think it makes it very difficult for us to take academic risks, to learn from others.”
Harvey C. Mansfield Jr. ’53, a recently-retired professor in the Government Department, said certain topics, like those on race and gender, have become too controversial “for even academic investigation.”
“It’s a limitation on frankness of conversation and argument that I think we see quite a bit out here,” Mansfield said.
Many faculty members said they believe academic freedom is not threatened by one political group over the other — the issue is beyond partisan politics.
“It’s not purely a left-right thing,” Cratty said. “It’s more like granular disciplinary debates that don’t obviously map on to national political questions, but are more about how ideas, what ideas went out in specific academic subfields.”
Still, not all faculty agree that the University has restricted their ability to express ideas.
Isaac F. Silvera, a Physics professor, said he has “not seen any problems at Harvard that have interfered with” his academic freedom.
“Academic freedom is the freedom to pursue your research interests, the interests in the sciences, and to be able to get results, publish them openly, and discuss your ideas openly, without interference from the administration of the university,” Silvera said, adding that he has not experienced restrictions to academic freedom.
Sean R. Eddy, chair of the Molecular and Cellular Biology Department, said that he disagrees with drawing distinct “sides” in issues at the intersection of science and social affairs.
“I’ve never had any trouble having a scientific conversation with anybody I actually know personally, including some of the people on the two sides of this. But when it gets into public, somehow it polarizes. And both sides will say things that neither of which I’ll agree with as a scientist, or as a human being,” Eddy said.
Nonetheless, Eddy said social and political issues — that often dominate conversations about academic freedom — are not his area of expertise, and many are not “directly relevant” to his work in science.
Faculty members also argued that discomfort with certain ideas is central to academic freedom.
“You have to be able to express controversial ideas, as long as you’re doing it in good faith,” Eddy said. “And then people should engage you — in good faith — in intellectual discussion on whether those are good ideas or bad ideas.”
“The context of a university should be one in which there is robust, respectful disagreement over ideas, and that the first reaction — or early reaction — to hearing ideas that you might disagree with on first hearing them is not to demand that they be shut down or punished or called to task in some way,” said Flier, the former HMS dean. “That is the opposite of what a university should be.”
FAS spokesperson Anna G. Cowenhoven declined to comment for this article.
While professors have created the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard, some students at the College have carved out spaces specifically dedicated to promoting free idea exchange.
The 1980s saw the creation of the Harvard Salient, a campus publication aimed at elevating contrarian viewpoints, often through anonymously published editorials.
“Pseudonyms are used in order to encourage freedom of expression and attract contributors who would otherwise be too shy of public exposure,” wrote then-Salient spokesperson Jacob A. Cremers ’23-’24 upon the paper’s revival in late 2021.
This public scrutiny often comes from peers, according to students.
“I think, depending on your political leanings, there can be a strong social pressure to not speak or not say your true beliefs,” Michael A.C. Hla ’23-24 said. “But in practice it’s depending on the people you surround yourself with.”
Tamar Sarig ’23 agreed that social circles played a significant role in policing opinions, but she said she personally had not witnessed censorship.
“I have friends with a wide range of viewpoints. Some are questionable, and they feel fine voicing those questionable opinions, and none of them have been canceled yet,” said Sarig, a Crimson Magazine editor.
“I’ve heard a wide range of ideological diversity at the school that I don’t think reflects the fearmongering that you hear about censorship,” she added.
According to a 2022 survey conducted by College Pulse and the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, 70 percent of surveyed Harvard students reported feeling either “comfortable” or “extremely comfortable” expressing their views on a controversial topic in a classroom setting, 9 percent higher than the national average.
When asked about sharing such views in campus social spaces, that number fell to 45 percent.
In the digital age, these social spaces can take the form of social media and online campus forums.
Last year, over an unmoderated house email list, students criticized then-Harvard Undergraduate Association Co-President LyLena D. Estabine ’24 for defending Harvard College Faith and Action — a Christian campus group that was previously sanctioned for pushing out a leader who was in a same-sex relationship. One student publicly called for Estabine to be recalled from the co-presidency.
Jaya J. Nayar ’24, also a member of the Intellectual Vitality Committee, pointed to incidents like this as examples of unproductive student disagreement.
“We are really trying to reencourage disagreement and look for healthier forms of disagreement, rather than having things that are spats on the email chains or in GroupMes that really devolve into nothing but hurt feelings and bitter sentiments,” she said last month.
During a classroom discussion, Shira Z. Hoffer ’25 said her professor dismissed her honest question.
The conversation centered on ways to dismantle the university system, which the professor said was discriminatory. Hoffer, a member of the Intellectual Vitality Committee, asked to take a step back, wondering why the system was discriminatory and needed dismantling in the first place.
“I was told, ‘We don’t ask that question because this classroom is a safe space,’” she said. “I think when questions are shut down in class, that’s a big red flag to me, because the whole purpose of class is to ask questions and learn things.”
Still, Hoffer didn’t think her professor was acting out of malice and acknowledged that encouraging tolerance of viewpoints on campus can be difficult when ideas are perceived as “fundamentally morally reprehensible.”
“I think that’s when things become extremely challenging, and the problem is that people draw those lines in different places,” Hoffer said.
Often, these lines are debated when discussing race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and sexuality.
In 2020, then-Government preceptor David D. Kane sparked extensive campus backlash when he invited to his class Charles A. Murray ’65, a social scientist who has hypothesized a relationship between race and intelligence, and whose work the Southern Poverty Law Center has termed “racist pseudoscience.”
Harvard did not renew Kane’s contract after racist posts he made on a Williams College alumni blog came to light.
In 2021, Human Evolutionary Biology lecturer Carole K. Hooven received student and faculty pushback following comments she made on Fox News arguing that there are only two sexes and decrying the pressure on medical professors to use gender-neutral vocabulary. Cratty said faculty were thinking about the situation as the CAFH was being founded.
For Hoffer and other proponents of expanding free dialogue on campus, few topics should be off limits.
“As a Jew, I would happily sit down with a neo-Nazi for dinner,” Hoffer said. “If I knew what they had to say, one, I would just have a more robust understanding of humanity, which I think is fundamentally a beautiful thing. And two, if I were being crafty about it, I would now understand their arguments and be able to argue against them better.”
But for other students, platforming such views feels unnecessary, or even dangerous.
“I feel like all students at Harvard understand that white supremacy exists in America,” Rosie P. Couture ’26 said. “I do not think that we need to be welcoming people to our campus to voice those perspectives.”
Shraddha Joshi ’24, an organizer with the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee, said she found that platforming certain opposing viewpoints had the potential to produce a “false symmetry between oppressors and oppressed.”
Approximately 57 percent of surveyed faculty said that Harvard should give platforms to controversial speakers, even when a significant number of students or faculty object to their views. Roughly 20 percent disagreed.
Though they think voices from opposing viewpoints can be valuable, Oliver J. Slayton ’26 said Harvard should be cautious in providing a platform to speakers who challenge the rights of certain students.
“The weight and the merit that the name of Harvard carries and saying that you were a guest speaker at Harvard means something,” Slayton said. “If someone gets that seal of approval and gets to boast about it and use it to broaden their audience and increase their voice, whose voices are we increasing?”
“I think where I personally draw the line is where someone’s rhetoric or ideas directly conflict with someone’s right to exist, right to express themselves in safe ways,” they added.
Alex Morey, FIRE’s director of campus rights advocacy, cautioned against conflating issues of academic freedom with those of discrimination and harassment, which she said Harvard already has robust policies against.
“We are big proponents that two things can be equally true,” Morey said. “Existing Harvard policies already do a good job of saying, ‘We don’t tolerate discriminatory harassment on campus,’ ‘We don’t tolerate threats or violence,’ and ‘We also allow students and faculty to talk about, teach about, research about a wide variety of topics, even ones that are offensive.’”
Similarly, Lewis said he believes the University is responsible for protecting its affiliates’ physical safety, but should not protect them from unpleasant speech.
“People should feel safe. But again, no one should feel safe from troubling words and troubling thoughts, troubling ideas,” Lewis said. “Higher education sometimes involves troubling feelings.”
—Staff writer Natalie K Bandura contributed reporting.
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