Harvard dean: 'We need to be vigilant in ensuring no one is prevented from speaking'

Numerous administrators across Harvard University opened the academic year with an emphasis on free speech and intellectual debate—a sharp departure from multiple attempted shutdowns in recent years.

These calls, made by University President Larry Bacow, College Dean Rakesh Khurana, and Kennedy School Dean Douglas Elmendorf as part of opening letters and addresses, were reported in a Harvard Magazine feature titled “Reasoned Debate, Free Speech, and Service.”

Highlights included Khurana’s call to “be vigilant in ensuring no one is prevented from speaking or expressing any idea” and Bacow’s admonition that “when we stifle disagreement in our community by ignoring and ostracizing dissenters, we lose our ability to make meaningful change.”

Khurana, in separate letters to both freshmen and returning students, noted that “we may disagree, and we may encounter ideas that make us uncomfortable. The temptation to drown out these ideas can be strong.” But he implored students to be wary of this temptation, telling returning students, “I am also concerned that sometimes on this campus we see those with differing opinions as undeserving of our attention, our respect, or our compassion.”

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The dean clarified, saying “allowing someone to speak does not mean we condone what they are saying, and it does not absolve that person or group from consequences.” But he encouraged students to remember “that even in difficult moments, we are deserving of each other’s respect and compassion.”

Bacow took perhaps a stronger stand in his “Morning Prayers” speech at Memorial Church, asking “how can we profess to be seekers of Veritas, seekers of truth, if we shame and shun those who disagree with us?” Himself a victim of "cancel culture" in spring 2019, when his own event had to be moved because of disruptions by fossil-fuel  protesters, he continued, “how can we have any hope for the wider world if we cannot model in our community the reasoned debate and discourse we wish to see elsewhere?”

Bacow’s comments follow a strongly worded spring 2019 op-ed in the Harvard Crimson, in which he wrote, “the heckler’s veto has no place at Harvard.”

Some students are encouraged by these statements. 

“It sends an important message to the country that Harvard prioritizes the protection of free speech on its campus," Harvard Republican Club president Victoria Marquez told Campus Reform. "Its policies seek to protect the rights of both speakers and protesters. Listening to different perspectives challenges us all to reevaluate our beliefs, and open, productive discourse is critical to Harvard’s mission of educating citizen-leaders. We should all make it a personal mission to foster respectful free speech on campus.”

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Kennedy School Dean Douglas Elmendorf seems to agree with Marquez, noting in a welcoming address that “the right values for public leaders also include engaging in civil discourse with people with whom you disagree, even if those disagreements seem insurmountable.” Further, he asked students to “be open to the possibility that different [moral] judgments from yours have value as well.”

The Harvard Kennedy School was recently criticized for extending a fellowship to former Michigan Republican Gov. Rick Snyder. Following campus backlash over his alleged role in the Flint water crisis, however, Snyder later withdrew from the fellowship.  

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