At the university, you’re free to excuse Hamas’s atrocities, but don’t dare say anything that offends leftists.
After Harvard student groups blamed Israel for Hamas’s atrocities, the global backlash was so fierce that the university’s president, Claudine Gay, released a video statement that in some ways proved even more puzzling. “Our university rejects the harassment or intimidation of individuals based on their beliefs,” she said. “And our university embraces a commitment to free expression. That commitment extends even to views that many of us find objectionable, even outrageous.”
This was news to the scholars with unpopular views at Harvard who have been sanctioned by administrators, boycotted by students, and slandered by the Crimson student newspaper. And it was certainly news to anyone who follows the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression’s annual analyses of threats to free speech on campus.
In this year’s FIRE report, Harvard’s speech climate didn’t merely rank dead last among those of the 248 participating colleges. It was also the first school that FIRE has given an “Abysmal” rating for its speech climate, scoring it zero on the 100-point scale (even that was a generous upgrade, as its actual composite score was -10). That dismal distinction made headlines last month across the United States, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia—but not on the Harvard campus. The Crimson didn’t even publish an article in its news section, much less an editorial; Gay didn’t make a statement, either.
Once upon a time, journalists and scholars on both the left and right were staunchly devoted to free speech and academic freedom, if only out of self-interest. Liberals like Nat Hentoff of the Village Voice defended the rights of Klansmen and Nazis because they knew the First Amendment was their profession’s paramount principle. But in the past decade, that bipartisan devotion has been disappearing, particularly at elite colleges. Harvard’s journalists and scholars adopted the principles that Hentoff criticized in the title of one of his books: free speech for me, but not for thee.
Leftists are free to stir controversy without fear of punishment from Gay and other administrators, and they can count on the Crimson to defend them. Jewish groups on campus were outraged last year when the Palestine Solidarity Committee’s annual spring event, Israeli Apartheid Week, featured lurid murals accusing “Zionists” of being “racists” and “white supremacists.” The Crimson’s editorial board promptly declared itself “proudly supportive” of the murals and the international BDS (Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions) campaign to make Israel a pariah state. When that editorial stirred further outrage and accusations of anti-Semitism, the Crimson’s president issued a statement proclaiming the newspaper’s commitment to “freedom of expression.”
But that commitment vanishes when the campus’s leftist majority gets angry. The targets of their anger have received, at best, no support from the Harvard administration or the Crimson. At worst, those voices find themselves denounced, investigated, disinvited, or punished by administrators, and they have endured the Crimson’s outrageous campaigns to silence, sanction, and banish them.
Harvard’s abysmal rating is based partly on a series of censorship incidents at the school and partly on its students’ answers to questions in a national survey of 55,000 students. At Harvard, three-quarters of students didn’t feel comfortable publicly disagreeing with their professor on a controversial topic. Seventy percent said that it was acceptable to shout down a speaker, and 30 percent said that using violence to stop a speech was acceptable.
The dismal rating is also based on Harvard’s refusal to adopt a strict policy guaranteeing free speech, like that drawn up by the University of Chicago and adopted by other colleges. Harvard’s guidelines promise free speech but exempt speech that is not “civil” or that shows “grave disrespect for the dignity of others.” Those vague loopholes have enabled a double standard: you’re free to issue public statements vilifying Israel and to put up murals in Harvard Yard no matter how gravely they disrespect Jews, but don’t dare offend progressives with your research findings, political views, or even isolated comments in an interview or blog post.
One incident contributing to Harvard’s record-low FIRE score was its treatment of David Kane, who taught a data-science class in the government department. When Kane invited Charles Murray, the libertarian scholar (and Harvard alumnus) to give an online lecture in 2020, the Crimson started a campaign against both men. It ran a series of articles making evidence-free assertions that Murray’s research was “widely discredited” and airing accusations from activists and a Harvard professor that his work was “racist pseudoscience.”
Gay, then the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, was featured in an article headlined “Ahead of Speaker Event, FAS Dean Gay Says Charles Murray’s Work Lacks Academic Merit.” A dean responsible for protecting academic freedom should not, of course, participate in such a smear.
Murray is one of the nation’s most influential researchers, publishing more than a dozen books; his work has been cited tens of thousands of times in academic literature. Gay is a political scientist whose C.V. lists 11 articles and who had the unusual distinction of winning tenure without publishing a book, as David Randall of the National Association of Scholars wrote when Gay was named Harvard’s president last year. He noted that all the articles published in Gay’s career roughly equaled the output in a single year of the economist Lawrence Summers, the former Harvard president who lost his job after he offended feminists by accurately describing differences in genetic variability between the sexes.
The Crimson’s coverage of Kane’s invitation to Murray mobilized students to retaliate against Kane by searching a blog that he had run for nearly two decades to discuss issues at his alma mater, Williams College. The students accused Kane, who’d been a campaign donor to Barack Obama and was married to an Asian woman, of “racism” for having written that many black students would not gain admission without Williams’s affirmative-action program, and of “white supremacy” for having argued on free-speech grounds that Williams should not punish a student for putting up an “Identity Europa” decal.
The student paper escalated the campaign against Kane by scouring hundreds of thousands of words on his blog to quote more posts (out of context), mostly ignoring his explanations. In two editorials branding him a racist, the Crimson urged white students to boycott the class and demanded that Kane be fired. Gay announced that the school was investigating the complaints against Kane, who was temporarily removed from teaching the data-science class and reassigned to another class the next semester. At the end of year, when Kane’s department chair tried to renew Kane’s contract for a fourth year, the dean of the Social Sciences Department, Larry Bobo, forbade him from being rehired. When Kane was hired at another college in 2022, the Crimson ran yet another editorial excoriating him.
Murray summed up the treatment of Kane in a tweet: “What toxic, vicious places elite universities have become. The parallels between the mindset of these students and the Red Guards are scary accurate.”
Another incident contributing to Harvard’s last-place ranking was a department’s decision last year to disinvite philosopher Devin Buckley after learning that she belonged to a feminist group that opposed incarcerating biological males in women’s prisons or allowing them on women’s sports teams. The English Department had invited Buckley to lecture on an unrelated topic, British Romanticism, but then canceled the invitation on the grounds that Buckley was “trans-exclusionary.” The disinvitation attracted national attention—but no reaction from the Harvard administration, and no articles or editorials in the Crimson.
The paper’s editors sprang into action, though, during a particularly ugly censorship campaign in 2021 against J. Mark Ramseyer, a professor of Japanese studies at Harvard Law School. The Crimson targeted Ramseyer for his academic article challenging a leftist narrative about the Korean “comfort women” who worked in private brothels licensed by the Japanese military for its soldiers during World War II. Those women had become internationally renowned in the 1990s as victims of sex slavery after a memoir and a sensational series of newspaper articles in Japan that told of Japanese soldiers dragooning some from their homes at gunpoint. The memoir was later exposed as a fabrication, and the newspaper articles were retracted.
Ramseyer’s article, which had been accepted at the International Review of Law and Economics, discussed the contracts negotiated between the brothel operators and the comfort women and their families. It was an economic analysis comparing the wartime contracts’ payments, incentives, and requirements with those in peacetime contracts at brothels (which were then legally licensed in Japan and Korea). But the notion that any of those women could have been prostitutes rather than sex slaves was taboo among some scholars at Harvard and other universities, who started a petition to prevent the article from being published.
The Crimson not only endorsed the petition but also called for Ramseyer to face “real repercussions” from the Harvard administration, as his “monstruous creation” did “not fall under the protection of academic freedom.” The editorial described his article, which cited dozens of scholarly works and historical documents, as “misinformation” with “no basis in reality.” Calling on the Harvard administration to condemn Ramseyer formally and “refute” his article, the editors wrote, “[w]e must recognize when ideas are dangerous and factually incorrect, then shut them down accordingly.”
The petition campaign delayed the publication of Ramseyer’s article, but the journal eventually published it after other scholars’ reviewed his work and Ramseyer provided a 65-page, point-by-point rebuttal of his academic critics. The Crimson responded with an editorial headlined, “Ramseyer’s Refutal Isn’t Worth Our Time.” Refusing to address any of his arguments or evidence, the editorial declared that Ramseyer’s “opinions were incorrect last year, remain incorrect today, and add nothing to legitimate scholarly debate.” The editors once again called on the administration to condemn his work. That didn’t happen, but during the yearlong campaign against him by students and faculty, Ramseyer says, “Harvard did not support me in the least.”
Carole Hooven felt similarly isolated during the ordeal that drove her out of the Human Evolutionary Biology Department, where she had taught a popular lecture course on hormones and behavior for two decades. Her troubles began in 2021 after she published T, a book about testosterone and sex differences. Asked during an interview on Fox News about the pressure at medical schools to avoid the terms “male” and “female,” she said that it was important to respect people’s gender identities and use their preferred pronouns, but that med students should be taught that just two biological sexes exist. For this, Hooven was denounced by the director of her department’s diversity and inclusion task force, a graduate student who tweeted that she was “appalled and frustrated” by Hooven’s “transphobic and harmful” remarks. More attacks followed, including another department chair circulating an email accusing her of being transphobic. After the Harvard Graduate Student Union issued a statement denouncing her, Hooven was unable to find any graduate student willing to be a teaching assistant in her undergraduate course.
“I felt as if I had the plague,” Hooven said. “I couldn’t teach my lecture course anymore because it had too many students for me to handle without graduate assistants. Administrators didn’t give me public support and basically told me to keep my mouth shut and stop causing problems. Colleagues stopped talking to me. It just became untenable.” She was 57 and had planned on remaining in the department for at least another decade but decided her only option was to take early retirement.
Students, of course, have every right to express their views and criticize professors, but universities are under no obligation to cater to their demands. When more than 100 students at the University of Chicago demanded in 2020 that a climatologist be denounced and forbidden from teaching because he had criticized affirmative-action policies, Robert Zimmer, then the university’s president, made no attempt to address their specific accusations and demands. Instead, he issued a simple statement reiterating the university’s free-speech principle that scholars were free to criticize policies “without being subject to discipline, reprimand or other form of punishment.” And that was that.
At Harvard, by contrast, such controversies rage on, because administrators and professors cower to students, particularly on racial and sexual issues. One illustrative incident was the school’s treatment in 2021 of Kit Parker, who, together with students in his engineering class, had been analyzing data from a police program to reduce gang violence in Springfield, Massachusetts. Black, white, and Hispanic leaders in Springfield had praised the program, but any work with police departments became controversial at Harvard after the death of George Floyd in 2020. More than a dozen campus groups (including the Harvard Alliance Against Campus Cops) called for the engineering class to be cancelled (for, among other alleged sins, its failure to include an “analysis of structural racism”). Harvard bowed to their wishes, and the Crimson published an editorial hailing the “rightful cancellation” of this “immoral” class.
When Harvard started searching for a new president last year, nearly 250 students, professors, and alumni petitioned the search committee to choose a candidate who “actively affirms the importance of free speech.” Gay was obviously not the candidate they had in mind, as Harvard alumnus Francis Merton complained on his Manhattan Contrarian blog after her appointment: “The picture emerges of Gay as the enforcer-in-chief of wokist orthodoxy at Harvard.” Gay’s signature achievement as dean: a series of initiatives to expand the diversity bureaucracy and promote “an effective and active culture of anti-racism.”
In 2019, near the height of the #MeToo era, Gay sided with students demanding that Ronald Sullivan, a law professor, be removed from his position as dean of Winthrop House because he had joined the defense team for Harvey Weinstein. Sullivan wrote a 1,200-word defense of his participation, stressing the need to protect the right to counsel for unpopular defendants, but Gay told the Crimson that his response was “insufficient,” and he was subsequently removed from his post at Winthrop House.
Gay was involved in the controversial sanctions imposed on the economist Roland Fryer (now a Manhattan Institute fellow) after he was accused of sexual harassment, according to Rob Montz, who argued in Quillette and in a documentary that Fryer was singled out for disproportionate punishment because his much-celebrated research into education and policing had challenged progressive dogma on racism. Most of the accusations against Fryer were rejected during a lengthy investigation, which concluded that he had made harsh comments and inappropriate sex-tinged jokes in his laboratory but had never touched or made a pass at anyone, as Stuart Taylor reported in RealClearInvestigations. The investigators’ initial recommendation was that Fryer undergo remedial training, but a group of Harvard administrators insisted on harsher punishment. Two of them were Gay and another dean, Bobo, according to Montz, who wrote that Gay “reportedly went so far as to ask Harvard’s president to revoke Fryer’s tenure.” That did not occur, but Harvard suspended Fryer without pay for two years and shut down his lab. When he returned to Harvard in 2021, the university forbade him to work with graduate students. Even that wasn’t punishment enough for the Crimson, which greeted his return to campus with an editorial lamenting that he hadn’t been permanently banished.
One encouraging development at Harvard occurred in April, when psychologist Steven Pinker and psychobiologist Bertha Madras announced that faculty members were forming the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard. Citing the cases of “disinvitation, sanctioning, harassment, public shaming, and threats of firing and boycotts,” they promised to support colleagues “threatened or slandered for a scholarly opinion,” and to advocate for new policies protecting academic freedom. “When activists are shouting into an administrator’s ear,” they wrote, “we will speak calmly but vigorously into the other one.”
Will anyone listen? The council’s members are a minority on campus (less than 150 of the more than 2,000 faculty members) and face plenty of resistance—including, as usual, from the Crimson, which greeted the new group with an editorial that would have made Nat Hentoff weep. It began by declaring the Crimson a “steady supporter” of free speech—because “any other stance would be hypocritical” for journalists—but then explained that this freedom didn’t apply to scholars accused of “racism, sexism, or transphobia.” The editorial repeated the baseless slanders against the victims of the Crimson’s previous inquisitions and concluded, “Academic freedom requires academic value; factually incorrect opinions, no matter how reviled, cannot lay claim to such protections.”
With leftist students now being pilloried for their statements on Israel, however, perhaps others on campus are rediscovering the virtues of tolerance. Shortly after Gay’s statement supporting the students’ free-speech rights, the Crimson published another defense of the students’ rights, written by three professors. One of the authors, Ryan Enos, a professor in the government department, made news in the Crimson two years ago by urging Harvard’s president to consider “barring or removing people from our community” who were guilty of “encouraging violence” at the Capitol on January 6—a group he defined rather broadly. Enos asked the president to decide whether any veterans of the Trump administration should ever be allowed to join the Kennedy School, and suggested a candidate for immediate banishment: Alan Dershowitz, an emeritus professor at the law school, who had offered to defend Trump in an impeachment trial.
In the recent op-ed, Enos and his coauthors took a different view of free speech and violence. Yes, they wrote, the students were “misguided” to absolve Hamas of blame for its atrocities, but “reasonable people can debate the roots of violence and conflict,” and “no one should be punished for dissenting views.” Unfortunately, the rest of the op-ed consisted mainly of demands that faculty members, politicians, and business leaders refrain from even criticizing these students’ views. That’s not quite how the First Amendment works. The professors seemed as oblivious as ever to Harvard’s double standard for free speech, particularly in their closing line: “If thoughtful discourse cannot prosper here, where can it?”
Actually, just about anywhere else.
John Tierney is a contributing editor of City Journal and coauthor of The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It.
Photo by JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images
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Copyright © 2023 Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, Inc. All rights reserved.
At the university, you’re free to excuse Hamas’s atrocities, but don’t dare say anything that offends leftists.