ACTA in the News | Freedom of Expression

Can Harvard Faculty and Students Trust a Dean Who Wants to Punish Speech?

MINDING THE CAMPUS   |  June 24, 2024 by Samuel J. Abrams and Steven McGuire

Harvard Dean of Social Science Lawrence Bobo set off a firestorm last week when he published an article suggesting faculty should be punished for publicly criticizing the university. His position, if implemented, would severely weaken the already fragile state of academic freedom at Harvard. As dean, his significant power over the careers of many faculty members makes this particularly troubling. Bobo’s influence on research agendas, grants, leaves, tenure, promotion, and the overall culture of the social sciences cannot be understated.

The many responses to Bobo confirm, in real-time, the chilling effect his op-ed has on the Harvard faculty. Although there are reports that he has managed the rare feat of unifying the opinions of Harvard faculty against him, the public rebukes have come mostly from university outsiders or Harvard faculty who do not serve under Bobo.

Among the Harvard faculty, leaders of the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard responded. However, only three authors work under Bobo, and the group’s membership is heavily skewed toward Harvard’s professional schools rather than the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), which is traditionally the core of Harvard.

Jeffrey Flier, former dean of the medical school and a noted defender of free expression, signed that letter and penned his own response. A few others who were favorable to the recent anti-Israel encampments but did not report to Bobo have also voiced their objections.

But what about the social science faculty? Academics from the Government and Sociology departments—who study power and social changewere notably silent and disengaged. The one exception is Steven Pinker, a principled defender of academic freedom. Bobo singled him out as someone who should be sanctioned for criticizing Harvard because of his notoriety. Despite reporting to Bobo, Pinker signed the CAFH letter and shared several responses from others on social media. Highlighting the absurdity of Bobo’s position while sharing one article, Pinker mused, “I guess by tweeting this I’m endangering my standing as a professor in the Division of Social Science at Harvard.”

Former Harvard President Lawrence Summers, who publicly critiqued Harvard’s response to Hamas’s October 7 attack and who Bobo alluded to in his op-ed, responded to Bobo, saying he was “stunned that a Harvard dean would call for censuring any faculty members’ comments on university affairs” and calling his view “an obvious intrusion on academic freedom.”

One social science professor at Harvard illustrated the problem perfectly. The person told the Boston Globe that Bobo’s argument “represents an authoritarian mindset, with no place in a university” but was only willing to respond anonymously to “the dean who determines [my] salary, particularly when the dean is saying that deans have the right to punish faculty who criticize deans.”

Faculty, alumni, and others have voiced concerns about not just academic freedom but opaque university governance structures that lack transparency. Bobo’s policy, if implemented, would further damage Harvard on both fronts.

Quite reasonably, Summers has called on Harvard President Alan Garber and FAS Dean Hopi Hoekstra to clarify that Bobo’s op-ed does not represent the university’s position. No statements of clarification have been made so far.

In response to the outrage, Bobo told The Harvard Crimson that the “op-ed expresses my personal views as a member of the faculty, seeking to put important questions before the wider Harvard community.” A university spokesperson also said that Bobo’s views “are his own and do not represent a position of Harvard University.” But can the social science faculty at Harvard trust these assurances?

Even though Bobo has indicated he would not respect the academic freedom of his colleagues, he still enjoys its protections and has a right to make his opinions known. At the same time, a university needs to be led by people who believe in and are ready to defend its core principles and purposes. Bobo’s op-ed should not affect his position as a faculty member at Harvard, but it is unclear how faculty can trust a dean who thinks faculty should be punished for publicly criticizing the university; Bobo’s standing is now completely compromised, and faculty cannot trust him in a position of such powerful authority and influence.

Some might also wonder whether his students can trust him. Bobo is a “Harvard College Professor,” an honor given to those who show a “commitment to undergraduate teaching,” but he profoundly misunderstands how open inquiry works. If Bobo believes that ideas should not be openly expressed and criticisms should be suppressed or sanctioned, how free will his students be to express themselves? What will they do if they disagree with him or feel unfairly treated in one of his classes?

We suggest that Bobo leave his administrative office in Harvard Yard and walk over to Littauer Center, the long-term and storied home of Harvard’s economics department, on his way back to his faculty office in William James Hall. On the wall there, Bobo will find an old portrait of Albert O. Hirschman, who taught at Harvard from 1964 to 1974. While at Harvard, Hirschman —who saw the horrors of the Spanish Civil War and the Holocaust and would worry about the censorship and violence that is happening on campuses nationwide —wrote “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty,” and Bobo would be well served to read and learn from this book.

In it, Hirschman argued that when consumers face deteriorating quality of goods and services, such as what is happening at Harvard and in higher education in general, they can either exit or voice their concerns. Harvard faculty and alumni will not exit, that is, quit the organization or switch to a competing school. They love Harvard and its history. Instead, they will use their “voice” to exert influence for change “from within.” Alumni and faculty don’t want Harvard to decline or fail. When they critique Harvard, they show loyalty by slowing exit and permitting voice to play its proper role. Bobo is the Dean of the Social Sciences. He should go back and learn some tried and true social science developed right next to Harvard Yard, welcome voice, and not try to punish and silence it.

This post appeared on Minding the Campus on June 24, 2024.


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