After months of turmoil and sharp criticism from some alumni and donors, Harvard University said Tuesday that it would no longer take positions on issues that are not “relevant to the core function of the university.”

In doing so, the Ivy League school has not fully embraced “institutional neutrality” but is stepping away from statements that express solidarity and empathy, such as those the university issued after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Hamas’ attack on Israel, and other potentially divisive topics that have nothing to do with education.

In other words, Harvard’s leadership has been suddenly stricken with a bout of common sense.

Cynics might say that the decision was necessary given public outcry over Harvard’s handling of student protests and the resulting withdrawal of financial support from wealthy donors like Bill Ackman and Kenneth Griffin. Even the resignation of former President Claudine Gay did little to stifle criticism of Harvard and other elite universities for enabling a climate in which antisemitism could fester. And some Republicans seized the upswell of anti-Ivy-League sentiment to argue that the schools should not have public support.

But even if the change is motivated by self-interest, in reversing course, Harvard has a chance to emerge from the turmoil as a leader, the shaper of values and thought that universities have historically wanted to be. It’s a long shot, but it also has an opportunity to win back the support of social conservatives.

It’s safe to say that wasn’t on anyone’s bingo card for this year.

In steering the public conversation toward the core function of institutions, Harvard is giving Americans something we desperately need: hope that we might someday return to a world in which our academic and corporate overlords aren’t preaching the gospel of progressivism. It’s not that big an ask, really.

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Colleges and universities shouldn't be in the business of making political statements
Did social conservatives go too far in celebrating the fall of Claudine Gay?

The events of Oct. 7 largely overshadowed everything that happened earlier in 2023, but many of the headlines before Israel was attacked involved social conservatives pushing back against the progressive agenda that was being force-fed to them by companies determined to not just sell them stuff, but ideas.

Boycotts against Target and Bud Light had nothing to do with the quality of the goods being sold, and everything to do with the way they were being marketed. In fact, the boycotts were effective precisely because the boycotters liked Target and Bud Light; they just didn’t like companies seeming to take a stand on social issues, through relentless greenwashing, pinkwashing and bluewashing.

Similarly, for all the outcry about “elite universities” corrupting America’s youth, I’ve never known a parent who didn’t speak with pride of a child getting accepted into Harvard or Yale. There’s still a mystique about our great universities that persists despite the best efforts of the outrage machine. That’s one reason that there is something resembling relief in social media posts applauding Harvard’s decision. Book learnin’ and common sense, it seems, can coexist again.

Others approvingly noted on social media that the new Harvard policy, while not applicable to students, would apply to anyone authorized to speak on behalf of the university: “That should include the president, provost, and all deans as well as heads of departments, centers, and programs; it should also in principle extend to university governing boards and faculty bodies (such as faculty councils and the faculties of schools and departments acting collectively).”

Further, Harvard’s working group advised: “There will be close cases where reasonable people disagree about whether a given issue is or is not directly related to the core function of the university. The university’s policy in those situations should be to err on the side of avoiding official statements.”

While in retrospect, many people might wonder why “the best and the brightest” are just now figuring out this last bit of wisdom, I think we can all agree on “better late than never” and hope that this policy proves infectious.

This approach reminded me of a remark made by President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who once said, “On contested issues, we (should) seek to moderate and to unify.”

Perhaps “avoid official statements” and “seek to moderate and to unify” aren’t exactly the same thing, but both approaches help to lower the temperature of our inflamed discourse in the public square. If Harvard wants to lead us to a place where corporate America and higher ed focus on their core missions alone, I’m all in — especially if the school can bring others along.

Earlier this year, The Free Press published an essay by Harvard alumnus and donor Bill Ackman titled “How to Fix Harvard.” That was a remarkably hopeful headline at the time, conveying Ackman’s belief that Harvard could, in fact, be fixed, despite the “burn it all down” cries coming from so many on the right.

The statements coming out of Harvard this week suggest a welcome course correction, and despite some complaints that Harvard isn’t going all in on institutional neutrality, the turn of events deserves a grudging nod of respect, if not our full-throated applause.