Seeing cracks developing in Harvard’s foundation from diminishing intellectual freedom and a metastazing ideology, I wrote a warning Why I Won’t Give $10 to Harvard in 2017. But I worried then that “Harvard was not listening.”
Harvard’s decision this week to retain President Claudine Gay proves it never started listening. During Gay’s December 6 congressional testimony, she was asked if diversity of thought is encouraged by hiring professors with diverse viewpoints. She replied that Harvard did not track that data. The pregnant irony hung in the committee room air. Wasn’t Harvard obsessed with tracking, developing and proclaiming every other conceivable kind of diversity? Harvard may not keep this data but the Harvard Crimson does. In its 2021 Faculty Survey, the Crimson found that only 2.9% of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) identified as conservative or very conservative.
From public Federal Election Commission reports on donations by FAS professors between 2017 and 2020, one half of one percent (0.5%) of total donations went to Republicans. One wonders if any of Harvard’s 7,000 administrators (who outnumber undergraduates) fall out of political line. Historian Niall C. Ferguson, who left Harvard in 2016, wrote in 2021 that he believes the number of right-of-center professors at Harvard is diminishing.
“It became increasingly apparent over my 12 years at Harvard that conservative professors were not just a small minority but an endangered species that might go extinct,” he wrote. This year, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression’s (FIRE, an independent watchdog of academic freedom) ranked Harvard last of 248 schools in its annual assessment.
A university run and taught from a monolithic perspective has predictable implications. One orthodoxy consumes the institution and forces others out. Censorship is indeed thriving in plain sight at Harvard. The Crimson wrote in October 2023:
Free speech is under threat at Harvard. FIRE’s student survey indicates this real problem: 94 percent of surveyed Harvard students said they have self-censored in conversations with their peers before; 88 percent have felt they could not express an opinion because of how others would respond; and 36 percent reported being more likely to self-censor now than when they started at Harvard. The much more pervasive issue resides in our social climate, in the fear of social retribution that can make students unwilling to speak up in class or share their opinions. To say the least, this is a tragedy.
Conservative professors are scarce at Harvard so the Administration can focus on policing its own. Since 2017, professors’ freedom of speech and inquiry has been under mounting attack. John Tierney’s recent Harvard’s Double Standard on Free Speech catalogues multiple cases.
In 2023, 150 Harvard professors, including psychologist Steven Pinker, created the Council on Academic Freedom. The professors explained its purpose; citing “disinvitation, sanctioning, harassment, public shaming, and threats of firing and boycotts,” they promised to support colleagues “threatened or slandered for a scholarly opinion.”
Personal experience informs my perspective on Harvard. I serve on the Board of the Abigail Adams Institute (AAI). AAI was created, not by Harvard but by alumni like me using private philanthropy to provide viewpoint diversity at Harvard. More than anything, what I sensed from my front row seat was fear. Writers for the Salient, the conservative student publication, are afraid to use their names. Professor Tyler VanderWeele, the head of the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard, an AAI affiliate, also created to encourage intellectual diversity, was targeted for signing an amicus brief in the Griswold Supreme Court case. He was harassed for months and there were calls to revoke his tenure. If signing briefs was grounds for losing tenure there would be far fewer Harvard professors. We know the reality; signing the brief was not the issue, VanderWeele’s opinion was the issue.
I heard Professor Carole Hooven discuss her Harvard ordeal (covered by Tierney above). Hooven is a thoughtful woman and self-described lifelong progressive Democrat. She spent two decades teaching in the Evolutionary Biology Department. Her thought crime was emphasizing in an interview that while gender identity and pronouns should be respected, the scientific reality of two biological sexes should be taught to medical students. She became emotional when relating her rapid, extrajudicial persecution for expressing this fact. Her graduate teaching assistants defamed her and refused to teach her class. With disbelief and sadness, she described the Administration’s failure to support her. Ms. Hooven’s career was terminated without appeal by self-righteous kids.
Other Harvard professors have admitted to me, in embarrassed tones, that they now fear their students. They must feel the heat from the bonfires of their unlucky colleagues. The Administration does not drive this fear but presides as its essential enabler. The dirty work of active intimidation, verbal abuse, online attacks and disruption of class is carried out by students and graduate students. How did Harvard become an ally of fear?
Dean Gay’s August 2020 letter to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) provides the answer. This cataract of social justice jargon reads like a parody but tells us much about Ms. Gay. She writes “now is the time to reengage and reconnect, both with each other and with the promise of our mission to advance knowledge and discovery in service of a more just world.” Gay will “reactivate the cluster hire in ethnicity, indigeneity, and migration” whatever that means.
“To become the inclusive scholarly community, we aspire to be” she continues, “we must confront our dual legacies with honesty, humility, and resolve, including how they are visually represented in the spaces where we work, live, and learn.” Gay will establish a “Task Force on Visual Culture and Signage to take up this consequential conversation” (creating a group to remove white males’ names from buildings?). Readers confronted with this stuff, heaped in piles by Gay, sense one thing even if they won’t admit it: mediocrity.
While Gay’s syntax is obscure her message is clear. She proclaims the coming struggle sessions in Harvard’s Cultural Revolution. “This moment offers a profound opportunity for institutional change that should not and cannot be squandered,” Gay continues, “our individual and institutional shortcomings” and “our Faculty’s shared responsibility to bring truth to bear on the pernicious effects of structural inequality.” She will “dismantle the cultural and structural barriers that have precluded progress.” Ominously, she warns, “the work of real change will be difficult and for many it will be uncomfortable. Change is messy work.” Hooven and VanderWeele undoubtedly agree and we can say the names of many others; Fryer, Sullivan, Kane, Ramseyer, Parker.
Not long ago, my classmate Senator Dan Sullivan from Alaska, optimistically observed that our alma mater may be poised for a positive turn. Last week, in a giant metaphor, Sullivan was accosted inside Widener Library, the heart of the University, by a disrespectful mob of entitled students.
Do those who selected President Gay understand that with her the fear of the Salient writers, the anguish of Ms. Hooven and the assault on Dan Sullivan is a feature not a glitch?
Representative Elise Stefanik, a Harvard graduate, asked President Gay during her December 6 testimony, “At Harvard, does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s Code of Conduct?” Gay’s response was, “ It depends on the context.” Stefanik’s question was not a trap, prior witnesses were asked the same question and Gay had several opportunities to change her statement. Evaluating her response requires no “context.” I recall “conduct unbecoming a Harvard student” from my time as an undergraduate. I knew classmates who ran afoul of the rule. It was a high, even noble standard, and one I respected my university for maintaining. How would President Gay’s statement be judged by this standard? I will admit, the cognitive dissonance created when that response emerged from her lips momentarily disabled my mind! What about “microaggressions,” “safety,” and “inclusion and belonging?” But her assertion of Harvard’s “deep commitment to freedom of expression” combined with her poorly disguised arrogance, shook me to my senses. Harvard’s President was either, 1) delusional about the place she runs or, 2) a liar.
For anyone with sincere concern for Harvard President Gay’s testimony was a sign something is gravely wrong. How long have we traveled an errant path for a President of Harvard to answer as she did? The Stefanik exchange reminded me of the court scene from A Few Good Men. In a moment the witness unintentionally revealed the verdict with perfect clarity.
President Gay must go. Her “context” reply was only possible after years immersed in a didactic monoculture, enforced by giant bureaucracies and driven by twenty-something zealots. This describes the modern academy. Education as indoctrination results in a form of inbreeding. The lack of intellectual diversity compounds the defect with time, creating brittle, strident, intellectually defective offspring. Gay went from Phillips Exeter to Princeton to Stanford to Harvard (when Gay suffered the “pernicious effects of structural inequality” is not clear). Did this defect distort the judgment of one of the most influential educators in the world or shape a fundamentally distorted judgement? The problem with Claudine Gay is that she was never a solution to Harvard’s problem. She was chosen to perpetuate the problem.
Harvard is its reputation. Much more than donations are at stake. Built over centuries, the project of great teachers, students and benefactors, Harvard is inextricable from America herself. Harvard could always claim preeminence, I believed it was the best in 1987. Today, I discourage my children from applying, and I am far from alone. Long before October 7, friends whispered that the kids from Notre Dame and Purdue were better hires than the Harvard students. The evidence of Harvard’s plummeting regard is everywhere for those who care to look. I wrote in 2017, “If Harvard does not support intellectual freedom Harvard is failing.” Has Harvard failed?
President Gay was a mistake. The Harvard Corporation did not elect scholarship, consensus and leadership when these were required, they tripled down on Woke. What an honor, and responsibility, to steward the legacy of Harvard University. Judgments on Gay’s plagiarism and thin academic credentials are unnecessary, her conduct since October 7 told us all we need to know. Removing President Gay would return Harvard to national leadership, setting an example for the course correction beckoning across American higher education. The Corporation and its members should understand that despite their decision, President Gay’s conduct has rendered the final verdict for the world.