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Harvard College Debuts Intellectual Vitality Initiative After 3 Years of Talks

Dean of Harvard College Rakesh Khurana speaks at the annual Convocation ceremony for Harvard freshmen. Harvard College's Intellectual Vitality Initiative has finally gone public after nearly three years of talks.
Dean of Harvard College Rakesh Khurana speaks at the annual Convocation ceremony for Harvard freshmen. Harvard College's Intellectual Vitality Initiative has finally gone public after nearly three years of talks. By Julian J. Giordano
By Michelle N. Amponsah and Joyce E. Kim, Crimson Staff Writers

After nearly three years of quiet meetings, Harvard College’s Intellectual Vitality Initiative has finally gone public.

The initiative, spearheaded by College Dean Rakesh Khurana and a committee of undergraduates, faculty, and administrators, began student-facing programming early this semester and will launch “phase three” of its plan to improve the free exchange of ideas on campus in the summer.

The initiative comes as Harvard’s student body experiences intense divisions over student activism surrounding the war in Gaza and Harvard’s leadership crisis. Khurana clarified in an interview with The Crimson last Tuesday that intellectual vitality programming was planned last year and was not a reaction to campus controversies.

Still, as Harvard emerges from a painful fall semester, its top administrators have been increasingly concerned about self-censorship and a potential chilling effect on speech on campus.

Interim President Alan M. Garber ’76 told The Crimson he was disturbed by students censoring themselves in the face of anti-Israel sentiments late last month, and Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Hopi E. Hoekstra launched a “civil discourse initiative” in December.

The intellectual vitality initiative is conducting a survey of undergraduates and began trainings for proctors and tutors in residential houses earlier this semester.

The initiative will launch a new dialogue series this spring with the FAS called “Books Open, Gates Unbarred” to discuss current events, per its website. The third phase will also include redesigning required freshman Expository Writing courses and incorporating intellectual vitality into programming for incoming students.

Ariel F. Kohn ’26, an Intellectual Vitality undergraduate fellow, said that the goal of the student survey is “to establish a starting point and to understand where we are right now with respect to the different metrics of intellectual vitality.”

Kohn said the student body is experiencing a lot of “self-censorship” and “self-segregation” and that there is a long way to go before Harvard’s campus can effectively maintain a healthy academic and intellectual culture.

The group began in 2021 when students approached Khurana with concerns about the free exchange of ideas on campus and a desire to “engage in open, thoughtful conversation.” Since its founding, some members have been invited to speak before the Faculty Council and the Harvard Board of Overseers, the University’s second-highest governing body.

Khurana told The Crimson that the transition from informal discussions to programming for intellectual vitality was enabled by the support of donors.

“In June, the College sets goals and priorities,” Khurana said. “We shared those with — as we ordinarily do — the community, including communities of donors.”

“There were people who were interested in supporting this, and they provided resources to support the work that we were doing on intellectual vitality,” he added.

Though the initiative’s existence was first reported by The Crimson in April 2023, it was officially introduced to undergraduates via a free expression summit co-hosted by the College and PEN America on Jan. 18 and 19.

During his interview, Khurana stressed the distinction between intellectual vitality and free speech, which he said was “anchored more within a political tradition.”

“Intellectual vitality is really critical to what it means to be a liberal arts and sciences education,” he said.

Kohn said the project’s goal is to ensure that every Harvard student knows what intellectual vitality is and is “bought into the mission.”

Intellectual vitality should be “something that makes students feel proud to go to Harvard — that helps define their experience,” she added.

—Staff writer Michelle N. Amponsah can be reached at Follow her on X at @mnamponsah.

—Staff writer Joyce E. Kim can be reached at Follow her on X at @joycekim324.

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