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Editorials

Harvard Has Finally Stopped the Statements. Two Questions Remain.

Massachusetts Hall is home to the Harvard University president's office.
Massachusetts Hall is home to the Harvard University president's office. By Julian J. Giordano
By The Crimson Editorial Board
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.

Yesterday, Harvard’s top leadership sent the rare University-wide email that did its readers good: Effective immediately, the University will no longer release public statements about social and political issues, save for those intimately connected to its core academic mission.

This change — prompted by the series of failed statements that dragged Harvard into the spotlight after Oct. 7 — is an important, needed step to shore up the weaknesses that produced the University’s year of crisis.

The Institutional Voice Working Group, interim President Alan M. Garber ’76, and the Corporation got it right: Boilerplate statements about controversial issues serve nobody. Disembodied pronouncements from Harvard on uncontroversial issues — say, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — uselessly echo campus consensus, while those engaging more divisive issues, like the war in Gaza, inflame tensions.

It seems like Harvard also got the process right. At universities, it’s no secret that task forces are where good ideas go to die slowly. For this reason, as the Garber administration has announced task force after task force, we have been apprehensive. Can these slow, bureaucratic, ad hoc bodies make real change?

In this instance, the answer was a resounding yes — and less than two months after announcement. The committee, led by professors Noah R. Feldman ’92 and Alison J. Simmons, deserves credit for its speedy and thoughtful work, as do Garber and the Corporation for taking decisive and confident action to implement their recommendations. We hope this effective model proves to be a new normal.

Harvard’s thoughtful framing of the change also counts in its favor. In its buzzy press rollout, the task force explicitly distinguished its recommendations from “institutional neutrality” — a smart move, given how distorted the term has become with overuse.

Avoiding the language of neutrality also clears the way for the University to vocally advocate for its interests as they face increasingly serious threats from what has become an all-out assault on higher education. In an op-ed in the New York Times, Feldman and Simmons signaled that this assault was front-of-mind during the committee’s deliberations, referencing the challenges of “an age of polarized politics.” Such frank and self-conscious engagement with this exigent threat is a welcome sight indeed.

Still, as with all major policy changes, the devil is in the details. Yesterday’s announcement leaves unanswered two important questions the University must address in the weeks and months ahead.

First, one that plagued Harvard this past semester: What to do about divestment? The task force was right to maintain that offering an answer to this question fell outside the scope of its mandate, but the fact remains that a proper answer is overdue.

Though the University has, several times, limited or ended certain types of investments for expressly political reasons, it has yet to publicly establish the principles by which it evaluates such questions. Indeed, our clearest indication of these principles lately comes from notes The Crimson obtained from a faculty town hall hosted by Garber and members of the Corporation.

This lacuna is destabilizing. As Harvard’s unhappy history of statement-making establishes, when forced to engage with hot-button issues, universities fare best by the consistent application of general principles, without which they make decisions ad hoc and may face charges of bias or unfairness.

To fill this gap, Harvard should launch an initiative to articulate its approach to calls for divestment, soliciting input from a broad range of affiliates, including divestment activists. We expect such a process, conducted in good faith, would avert the situation at the University of Chicago, which has used a policy of neutrality to deflect calls for divestment.

The second question Harvard must answer is what, in particular, it will still make statements about.

The task force is right to identify that the University must be able to vocally defend its core interests, but Harvard must be judicious about what clears that bar. Affirmative action certainly does; federal trade policy, not so much.

Taken to its extreme, we can imagine how the exception for the defense of higher education could come to enfold just about any social or political issue. To ensure it does not arrive back at square one, Harvard should be careful to guard against concept creep, including by establishing an internal process for reasoning through these decisions.

After a rocky fall, the University has realized, rightly, that the institutional voice is most powerful when used sparingly and consistently. Now, the task is to keep it that way.

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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