Harvard FAS Faculty Largely Dismayed by State of Academic Freedom on Campus, Per Survey

Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences is broadly pessimistic about the current state of academic freedom at the University, according to The Crimson’s annual FAS survey.
By Tilly R. Robinson and Neil H. Shah

University Hall, located in the center of Harvard Yard, is the historic home of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
University Hall, located in the center of Harvard Yard, is the historic home of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. By Ryan N. Gajarawala

Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences is broadly pessimistic about the current state of academic freedom at the University, according to The Crimson’s annual FAS survey.

Respondents overwhelmingly backed calls for Harvard to adopt an institutional neutrality policy and were largely troubled by perceived donor and politician influence at the University.

A longstanding worry among faculty in some quarters, academic freedom was quickly pushed to the forefront of campus discussions as the University faced repeated attacks from outside actors during an unruly winter. The Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard, for instance, grew from about 70 members when it formed last March to more than 180 as of Monday.

In response to growing concerns, the University took several steps to promote civil discourse and strengthen Harvard’s academic culture, including two working groups on free expression and institutional voice formed in April by interim Harvard President Alan M. Garber ’76.

But the survey results suggest that Harvard still has a ways to go.

The Crimson’s FAS survey was distributed to more than 1,400 faculty members, including both tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty, with names collected from the FAS’ public masthead. Faculty were polled on demographic information, politics, and campus issues.

The email survey had 508 responses, with 310 fully completed and 198 partially completed. The survey was open for two weeks, from April 3 to April 17.

This is the third installment in a series of pieces on the survey results. The first two installments covered faculty perspectives on the conflict in Gaza and Harvard’s governance. This installment focuses on the FAS’ views on academic freedom at the University.

University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain and FAS spokesperson Holly J. Jensen declined to comment for this article.

Threats to Free Expression

Most respondents gave a grim diagnosis of the state of academic freedom at Harvard.

Even as faculty identified outside pressure as a major danger to academic freedom at Harvard, many expressed persistent concern about cultures of self-censorship and intolerance on campus as well.

A 57.1 percent majority of respondents said they felt poorly about the state of academic freedom at Harvard, with 39.0 percent answering that they felt “somewhat negatively” and 18.2 percent indicating they felt “negatively.”

Only 25 percent of respondents, on the other hand, expressed some level of positivity about academic freedom at the school, with the remaining 17.9 percent declining to opine.

However, to respondents, Harvard is faring much better than its peers. A larger majority of respondents — more than 72 percent — expressed alarm at the state of academic freedom across American higher education.

Most respondents laid the blame for their academic freedom woes at the feet of the political right. A slim majority of respondents, 50.8 percent, said they thought academic freedom was threatened more by the political right, compared to 26.3 percent who said they thought it was more threatened by the left.

Just more than 20 percent said they thought “neither the left nor the right” represented the greater threat, while less than 3 percent said academic freedom was not under attack.

A significant majority of respondents also said Harvard should adopt a policy of institutional neutrality, a proposal which has grown in popularity following the University’s year of controversy. Proponents of institutional neutrality have argued that political statements by universities reduce the scope of open debate on campus by signaling that their institution has adopted an official position.

More than 70 percent of respondents said they thought Harvard should adopt a policy of institutional neutrality, with 43.5 percent saying they “strongly support” and another 26.6 percent saying they “somewhat support” the idea.

Another question asked respondents to select which of 10 options they perceived as the “greatest threats to academic freedom at Harvard.”

Faculty expressed concern about factors closer to home, with 62.4 percent of respondents listing self-censorship as one of the greatest threats to academic freedom at Harvard. Just over half — 52.3 percent — considered intolerance among students one of the greatest threats. However, fewer respondents — only 22.9 percent — cited lack of ideological diversity among students.

Around a third of respondents said that intolerance among faculty and lack of ideological diversity among faculty, respectively, represented threats to academic freedom.

And, nearly 45 percent of respondents described the effects of policies and messaging from Harvard’s administration as one of the greatest threats to academic freedom, while almost 37 percent said diversity, equity, and inclusion programming stifled free expression and discourse.

After more than 20 undergraduates were put on probation and five were suspended by the Harvard College Administrative Board for their participation in the 20-day pro-Palestine encampment in Harvard Yard, some faculty slammed the disciplinary measures and said they represent a double standard against pro-Palestine speech.

But the survey results, collected prior to the encampment, suggest penalties for student protest do not crack the top of the list of concerns: only 21.9 percent of respondents considered restrictions on campus protest among the greatest threats to academic freedom.

External Actors

To respondents, however, the greatest threats to academic freedom at Harvard come from outside the University’s gates.

Pressure from donors was the most commonly-cited concern, named by 71.2 percent of respondents as among the greatest threats to academic freedom at the University.

Harvard has faced a wave of donor backlash since Oct. 7 — including from big-name benefactors like businessman Leonard V. Blavatnik and hedge fund managers Kenneth C. Griffin ’89 and Bill A. Ackman ’88, who felt the University allowed campus antisemitism to spread largely unfettered.

They’ve signaled they want Harvard to pay attention to their advice.

“Many wealthy donors have valuable insight into transformation and improvement strategies that are clearly needed at this time,” Griffin told the Financial Times in a May interview.

Though it is unclear to what extent donors’ demands have affected Harvard’s response to recent crises, a decisive majority of respondents indicated concern about how much sway they believe donors hold over Harvard.

More than 80 percent of respondents said they believed donors have too much influence on the actions of the University — with 57.4 percent of respondents saying they “strongly agree” and an additional 23.1 percent saying they “somewhat agree.”

Only 7.1 percent said they “somewhat” or “strongly” disagree that donor influence has been outsized.

Donors and alumni are not the only outside constituency trying to leverage pressure on the University.

Harvard has been under investigation by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce since Dec. following former President Claudine Gay’s widely-maligned congressional testimony.

The committee released a first report on Harvard Thursday stating that University leaders, including Gay, ignored the recommendations of its own antisemitism advisory group, and Chair Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) told The Crimson on Friday that the congressional scrutiny on Harvard was far from over.

“We’ll just have to see how serious Harvard is about correcting the problems,” Foxx said.

But a significant fraction of faculty respondents said they were uncomfortable with the extent of political influence over University policy.

Almost 76 percent of respondents said national politicians have too much influence on the University’s actions, with 36.0 percent saying they “strongly agree” and 39.6 percent saying they “somewhat agree” with the sentiment.

Nearly 16 percent said they “neither agree nor disagree,” while fewer than 10 percent of respondents said they “somewhat” or “strongly disagree.”


The 2024 edition of The Crimson’s annual faculty survey was conducted via Qualtrics, an online survey platform. The survey was open from April 3 to April 17.

A link to the anonymous survey was sent via email to 1,414 faculty in the FAS and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. The list comprised all faculty named on the FAS masthead for the current academic year, which includes FAS department and standing committee affiliates whose appointments are in other Harvard schools.

In total, 508 faculty responded to the survey, with 310 submitting fully completed responses and 198 submitting partial responses.

To check for response bias, The Crimson compared respondents’ self-reported demographic data with publicly available data on FAS faculty demographics for the 2023-24 academic year. (Unlike The Crimson’s survey, this data only includes faculty with FAS appointments.) The breakdown of survey responses was roughly in line with the demographic profile of the FAS.

More than 56 percent of respondents said they hold a tenure or tenure-track position, according to the survey. According to the FAS Dean’s 2023 Annual Report, 57.12 percent of FAS faculty are tenured or on the tenure track.

Among respondents who said they were tenured or tenure-track, 30.92 percent belong to the Arts and Humanities division, 27.10 percent to the Sciences division, 36.64 percent to the Social Sciences division, and 5.34 to the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

According to publicly available data for the 2023-24 academic year from Harvard’s Faculty Development and Diversity Office, 26.71 percent of tenured and tenure-track FAS faculty are in Arts and Humanities, 27.81 percent are in Sciences, 27.81 percent are in Social Sciences, and 12.88 percent are in SEAS.

The Crimson could not find public FAS data on the distribution of non-ladder faculty across the divisions.

Of respondents who identified their gender on the survey, 45.59 percent of respondents said they are female; among those who reported their race, 29.44 percent of respondents did not identify themselves as white (6.59 percent of respondents declined to identify their gender, and 14.3 percent declined to identify their race).

That compares to 39 percent of FAS faculty who are women and 27.6 percent who are not white, per the FAS Dean’s Report.

Survey responses were not adjusted for selection bias.

—Staff writer Tilly R. Robinson can be reached at tilly.robinson@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @tillyrobin.

—Staff writer Neil H. Shah can be reached at neil.shah@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @neilhshah15.

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