Should universities take positions on public issues? It is a hotly debated question that has been the focus of Congress, the media, and scholars since the October attack on Israel by Hamas. It is also the topic of the first Dean’s Discussion of the spring semester. Harvard Kennedy School Dean Doug Elmendorf created the series seven years ago to foster dialogue between faculty on subjects just as timely—and as fraught—as this one.  

Three HKS professors offered their views: Mathias Risse, the Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights, Global Affairs and Philosophy and director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy; Stephen Walt, the Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs; and Cornell William Brooks, the Hauser Professor of the Practice of Nonprofit Organizations and professor of the practice of public leadership and social justice. The discussion was moderated by Sarah Wald, senior policy advisor, chief of staff, and adjunct lecturer in public policy.

Stephen Walt.

“A university starts to undermine its unique contribution to a liberal society as soon as it represents its position as the expression of the collective body.”

Stephen Walt

Right away, the complexity of the issue became apparent. Walt, who has written about this very dilemma, began by defining what an institutional statement is, using the 1967 Kalven Report, which laid out the University of Chicago’s policy on weighing in on social or political issues, as his guideline. “When I talk about whether or not universities should be taking political stances or positions as an institution, I usually mean the burning social and political questions of the day,” he said. “A university starts to undermine its unique contribution to a liberal society as soon as it represents its position as the expression of the collective body.”

Neutrality, Walt pointed out from the report, encourages “the fullest freedom for its faculty and students as individuals to participate in political action and social protest” without coloring the dialogue.

Brooks challenged a neutral stance. “I think it’s important for us to appreciate the fact that neutrality can be understood in critical moments as silence, as a conscious decision not to speak,” he said. “If you choose not to speak, you are advocating silence.” He further argued that commenting on important issues is a way to support the community. “Read the university statements that a dean or president issued as expressions of comfort and compassion. And every leader knows that in these critical moments, if you choose not to speak, it is an abdication of leadership.” Addressing important issues, Brooks continued, supports a community and encourages robust dialogue. “What is foundational to the academic world is community.”

Audience member asking a question during the Dean's Discussion.

Suggesting that neutrality is often an illusion in today’s media landscape, Risse argued that while institutional statements should be rare, they are needed to support values.  “One way or another, the university does or fails to do certain things and thereby takes a stance. For instance, refusing to divest is not neutrality, it’s taking a stance. So, neutrality then becomes lack of transparency,” he said. “Harvard has a history of accountability, and an important role in influencing public opinion,” he noted. “The fact is that through the operations of the University, through the many ways in which we are these days globally integrated, the University takes a stance on any number of things every single day.”

Despite the repeated references to the Kalven Report and its Vietnam War-era findings during the discussion, there were plenty of current examples for the panelists to examine.

“If you’re concerned about the situation after October 7th or the situation in Gaza, great, but what about Sudan? What about what’s happening in Burma?” asked Walt. “University deans and presidents end up responding to whoever the loudest voices were, the people who got inside the room, the people who happen to have connections to the folks in power. And I think that’s not where university leaders want to be and it’s not going to encourage the kind of wide-ranging inquiry that actually can interrogate situations of injustice in a more thoughtful way.”

Cornell William Brooks.

“I think it’s important for us to appreciate the fact that neutrality can be understood in critical moments as silence, as a conscious decision not to speak.”

Cornell William Brooks

Brooks cited another recent incident at Harvard, when outside groups targeted Black women at Harvard with plagiarism. “All of us support academic rigor. We are all opposed to plagiarism and academic fraud, in any form. But to apply a standard selectively, politically, to weaponize a standard to attack Black women has wide-reaching effects,” he said. “I hear from students that they don’t see this as a political game in which Harvard administrators are targeted. They see themselves as being intellectually stigmatized. So, silence in that moment, neutrality in that moment, has a price, right?”

And while Walt agreed the University should speak on issues that affect its structure, as in the example Brooks noted, he maintained that its voice does not represent the views of individuals: “It speaks as an institutional voice.”  

Wald, in moderating the discussion, picked up on the idea of the institution versus the individual, noting that all three faculty members express their views publicly: Risse discusses human rights issues in his classes, Walt writes opinion pieces for the media, and Brooks occasionally gets himself arrested for the causes he believes in. “Why is it important that something be done institutionally if you have a community in which every individual faculty member and student is completely entitled and encouraged to voice their opinion?” she asked.
 

Audience members at the Dean's Discussion.


“It is of course a danger that individual faculty will feel stifled if the university takes stances,” Risse said. “But here two things will have to be true: the university should take views on matters that affect its own viability; and the university should make room for people to say whatever they could also say as citizens by American law when they leave the university premises, including lots of ugly things. The combination of these two will need to be made credible through good leadership.”

“The most thoughtful leaders tie the story itself to the political narrative, to the institutional narrative,” Brooks answered. He pointed to the 2020 court case where then-president of Harvard Lawrence Bacow used his own history to argue in favor of overturning a U.S. government policy to ban international students from attending college in the United States. “Not only did he relate his personal immigration story,” said Brooks, “He then reached out to the president of MIT, and they conspired to bring litigation, which was successful. It was seen as not only a legal message in terms of the ability of immigrant students to study at Harvard and other universities, but it was understood in the country as a moral message.” While the individual voices at Harvard are valuable and necessary, he added, they are not sufficient when it comes to critical issues: “People need to hear from the University and no other voice can be substituted for that.”

Mathias Risse.

“The university as such should take views on matters that affect its own viability; and the university should make room for people to say whatever they could also say as citizens.”

Mathias Risse

Louis Costa MPA 2024, in the audience, brought the discussion to a fine point by asking about universities protecting their image. “Are we conspiring to create this environment in which the image is more important than the voice?” he asked.

Brooks reminded the students, faculty, and staff at the event that Harvard is speaking “every time we put our work out into the world.”  

“I think the best leaders are concerned about reputation as opposed to branding. Reputation is built over time,” he said. “And recently I think some of what we are grappling with is the degree to which we speak with consistency over time, anchoring our values over and over again,” he continued.  “It doesn’t mean you inoculate yourself from criticism, but you’re able to weather criticism.”

The next and final Dean’s Discussion of the semester will be held on May 1 and will address the relationship between academic freedom and diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.
 


Photography by Jessica Scranton 

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