Perspective: Colleges and universities shouldn’t be in the business of making political statements
When universities choose to enter the political arena, it’s hard for them to withdraw from it later
In the wake of Hamas’ brutal terrorist attacks on the state of Israel, student groups on college campuses across the nation rushed to release statements. One such statement from the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee caused quite a stir, blaming the attacks on Israel’s so-called “apartheid regime,” and urging people to take a “firm stand against colonial retaliation.”
The coalition did not condemn the actions of Hamas, which murdered more than 200 concertgoers and fired rockets into sovereign Israeli territory. Former Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers was justifiably angered by the callous nature of the students’ statement. He was just as irate about Harvard University’s slowness to make a statement of its own regarding the terrorist attacks, saying that the university’s “delayed” words on the conflict failed “to meet the needs of the moment.”
Rather than demanding an eye for an eye, we should instead advocate for Harvard to disengage from the commotion of constant political statement-making. Not only can this practice undermine an institution of higher learning’s pursuit of free inquiry, but it also constantly opens the academy to external criticism. Why make a statement regarding the war in Ukraine, for example, and not one on the recently resolved Ethiopian civil war?
While outrage against these students may well be justified, universities interested in protecting free speech and fostering an environment which cherishes intellectual diversity should refrain from such political detours.
While Summers conceded that there is a case for ideological neutrality from the academy, he believes that Harvard’s past statements have forfeited any justification for neutrality in the face of Hamas’ attacks. “When you fly the Ukrainian flag over Harvard Yard, when you issue clear, vivid and strong statements in response to the George Floyd killing,” he said, “you have decided not to pursue a policy of neutrality.”
In other words, when universities choose to enter the political arena, it’s mighty difficult for them to withdraw from it — ever.
Summers himself was embroiled in political controversy during his tenure as Harvard’s president, making remarks that caused a political firestorm which eventually led to his resignation from his post. He should know firsthand how difficult it is for universities and their leadership to navigate the treacherous waters of political controversy.
Furthermore, making a habit of commenting on every passing political issue or moral catastrophe slowly but surely transforms the nature of the university. The academy is meant to be a place of learning that sits comfortably above the fray of political disputes, inculcating a culture of free inquiry within a harbor of scholarly freedom.
Reckoning with the social unrest and political tumult of the late 1960s, a faculty committee formed at the behest of University of Chicago President George W. Beadle came together to draft the Kalven Report, concluding that “The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic.” This spirit of academic freedom ought to imbue academia, guiding institutions away from the siren song of immediate reaction to the tragedies of the moment, and toward the sustained maintenance of academic autonomy and student learning.
If Harvard happens to be producing students who make statements like the one produced by the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee, this speaks to the university’s quality and value more than any statement prepared by press assistants and tailored by administrators ever could. Universities provide a platform for academics, researchers and students to display their own expertise and opinions on the issues of the day, serving as “the home and sponsor of critics.” The quality of this expertise and these opinions reflect on the university’s excellence, or lack thereof.
The value proposition and explicit mission for most colleges and universities is to create a space which allows for free inquiry, unconstrained — explicitly or otherwise — by institutional priors. Colleges and universities that position themselves as institutions of free inquiry should get out of the business of making political statements that blemish their integral commitment to academic liberty.
Beth Akers is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to Sutherland Institute’s “Defending Ideas” podcast. Joe Pitts is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.