Silverglate: Harvard’s road to “institutional neutrality’

Harvard University’s leaders, after many missteps, perhaps better described as disasters, on May 28 finally declared a policy of “institutional neutrality.”

Institutional neutrality is a concept developed in 1967 at the University of Chicago. Pursuant to a report issued by a faculty committee chaired by Prof. Harry Kalven, Jr., Chicago’s President George W. Beadle committed the university to a policy of institutional neutrality on all political issues. Pursuant to this doctrine, liberal arts colleges and universities should devote themselves to the task of researching, teaching and debating political, religious, and ideological issues rather than pronouncing institutional views on their merits. This principle becomes vital when a contentious political or other issue is suddenly front and center, and people or news media ask: “Where does Harvard (or any college or university) stand on this controversial question?”

This development doubtless can be attributed to the recent dissension on the campus at an intensity that has not been seen since 1969, when Harvard was wracked with dissension and even riots during the Vietnam War. At that time, my then law-partner Norman Zalkind and I represented about 100 Harvard students who rioted in Harvard Yard to protest that war and the role of some professors as advisors to the Department of Defense. Harvard President Nathan Pusey called in the Cambridge and State Police in what turned into a violent melee with over a hundred arrests. The jury ultimately voted all our clients “not guilty” because, despite the evidence, the war had become widely unpopular.

Recently, the war between Israel and Hamas, and the public outcry over the violence in Gaza, have provoked not only headlines but also student demonstrations. At Harvard, a group of pro-Palestinian students and supporters built an encampment in Harvard Yard just before Commencement. Rather than call in the police, Harvard’s interim President Alan Garber, most likely in consultation with Interim Provost John Manning, negotiated with the students, indicating that if they cleared out voluntarily, the disciplinary process would go easy on them. The demonstrators voluntarily left, and Commencement proceeded on schedule.

However, there was a double-cross when the disciplinary body known as the Administrative Board nonetheless voted for penalties, and the Harvard Corporation – the university’s top governing body – held up the granting of 13 diplomas. Over 1,000 students and faculty walked out of the Commencement ceremony shouting “let them walk,” as well as pro-Palestinian slogans. Ultimately the students settled in Harvard-Epworth Church for an unsanctioned faux graduation for those denied diplomas. However, compared to other colleges with similar issues – Columbia, for example – the result was rather moderate even if not ideal.

But Garber and Manning saw that unless something were done, this uncomfortable scene would be replicated. The world is now in more turmoil than it’s been in many decades. There’s not only a war between Israel and Hamas, but also between Russia and Ukraine. China is threatening Taiwan. Iran is causing as much trouble as possible, and Haiti is an anarchic mess.

This is why Garber and Manning, seeing the handwriting on the wall, with evident support from Harvard’s governing bodies, finally adopted a policy of institutional neutrality. Since Harvard can no longer opine on political, religious, ideological or other matters of opinion, there is no longer any motive on the part of special interest groups inside or outside the University body to lobby, demonstrate, or even riot on behalf of one cause or another. Hopefully, these long overdue reforms will allow those on campus to speak, debate, and listen to one another with civility once again.

I should add that I made my views on this known some time ago. On March 5, I wrote a letter to Garber and Manning, with the following paragraph:

“I would urge you to look at the “Chicago Principles” that wisely established that universities should not take political positions but, rather, should function as centers where all points-of-view can be developed, studied and  debated.”

The news from Cambridge, one can predict with some confidence, should be quieter when students return in September. And teaching and learning will resume. I hope that my letter played at least some small role in bringing this about.

(Harvey Silverglate, a lawyer and author, is the co-author of “The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on América’s Campuses,” and the co-founder of The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression


Alan Garber, interim president of Harvard University, applauds during a commencement ceremony.
Interim Harvard University President Alan Garber in a 2015 photo. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)

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