Harvard professors are taking a stand for free speech.
More than 100 of the school’s faculty members have joined the new Council on Academic Freedom, banding together to protect free speech on the Ivy League campus.
“We are in a crisis time right now,” Janet Halley, a Harvard Law School professor and feminist legal theory scholar, told The Post. “Many, many people are being threatened with — and actually put through — disciplinary processes for their exercise of free speech and academic freedom.”
The initiative was announced earlier this month with a Boston Globe op-ed penned by the council’s co-founder, psychology professor Steven Pinker, who declared, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, and if we don’t defend academic freedom, we should not be surprised when … a disgusted citizenry writes us off.”
After that, the council nearly doubled in size over just four days, drawing faculty across all disciplines, according to council co-president Jeffrey Flier.
Janet Halley, who has been at Harvard since 2000, joined after seeing countless professors targeted and punished for their speech or viewpoints.
“Many people think that they’re entitled not to be offended [on campus], and they are willing to complain,” she said. “It’s very difficult for institutions to stop the disciplinary wheels from churning.”
According to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), 145 professors were targeted for sanction nationwide in 2022 alone — something Halley said must stop: “An organization at Harvard, sponsored by faculty, is crucial for putting this issue on the agenda in a clear and consistent way in the Harvard environment.”
Despite consistently topping US News and World Report’s college rankings, Harvard ranked 170th out of 203 schools on FIRE’s 2022 Campus Free Speech rankings.
A 2023 survey conducted in collaboration with College Pulse found that only 27% of Harvard students thought shouting down a speaker on campus was never acceptable, while 26% said it’s at least occasionally permissible to use violence to stop speech on campus.
This change in attitude shocks some faculty members.
“During the great part of my career, I never really thought of there being a problem with free speech or academic freedom at Harvard,” medical school professor Jeffrey Flier, who has been at the school since 1978, told The Post. “I mean, that would have almost seemed like a non sequitur.”
But he began to notice a gradual degradation of free speech — and a lack of willingness to speak up — while serving as the Dean of Harvard Medical School from 2007 to 2016.
“There’s not enough of an advantage to someone on the faculty raising their hand, putting their head above the parapet, and saying, ‘I think this is wrong,’” Flier said. “There hasn’t been any network of people from across the spectrum that could be able to do this — but that’s what we now have in the council.”
Flier is co-president of the new group, which he hopes will help fortify free speech on campus — and preemptively prevent censorship: “When the next instance occurs … this group will spring into action both behind the scenes and publicly. And I think it will be a different ball game when that happens.”
One of his fellow co-presidents, philosophy professor Ned Hall, said the council is “resolutely non-partisan” and pulls members from across the political aisle.
“Some people will read the expression of academic freedom as code for ‘right wing.’ But it’s simply not,” he told The Post.
Hall, who has taught epistemology at Harvard since 2005, said he’s concerned by an uptick in students eager to squash out speech they don’t like.
“Some students come in, guns blazing, saying certain topics are just off limits and that you’re a terrible person if you raise them,” he said. “It doesn’t take very many of them to spoil the mood.”
But, according to Hall, it’s merely a tyranny of a very vocal minority. He joined the council and stepped up as co-president after several pupils confided in him that they feel their speech is being stifled on campus.
“Most students come to Harvard actively interested in having robust conversations and in being guided by us professors,” he said. “Students have said to me before, ‘I want to have conversations about hot button topics, but I’m not so comfortable doing it.’”
And the statistics back him up.
According to FIRE’s survey, only 14% of students would feel very comfortable expressing controversial views with peers, and three-quarters of students are at least somewhat worried about reputation damage if they express an unpopular opinion.
This shift away from free speech is a matter of educational failure before students even get to college, according to Jane Kamensky, an American history professor and council co-president.
“I’m interested in developing a skills-based approach … for students who, I don’t think, have been taught in K-12 how to have discussions about important issues,” she said. “I don’t think we approach it enough as a set of skills — how you approach somebody who thinks differently from you and how you ask questions and how you dig into ideas.”
As the organization grows, Hall hopes that people will see it’s not self-interest banding these professors together.
“Our motivation was not that we’re scared and we want protection for ourselves,” he said. “I mean, for God’s sake, I’m tenured at Harvard. I don’t have anything serious to worry about.”
What’s at stake, according to Hall, is larger than the council: “You want to be able to train citizens who know how to function with each other in a society.”
Thanks to New York Post