Most recently, Harvard moved to ban all exclusive social clubs, including fraternities and sororities, by 2022.
Despite Harvard’s promises that student rights are of primary importance on campus, the proposal would deprive students of their fundamental right to freedom of association, enshrined in the First Amendment.
Ultimately, Harvard’s decision to punish students who are members of such organizations, which choose members based on gender, comes down to a difference of opinion about values.
President Drew Faust explained in a 2016 letter that Harvard’s commitment to having “a truly inclusive community” was one of the university’s “deepest values.” Faust, who recently announced she will step down as Harvard’s president July 1, also asserted that gender is an “arbitrary” distinction between individuals.
Harvard’s position, then, is to punish students who disagree, in practice, with the university’s progressive position on gender difference. This is the definition of intolerance.
But Harvard’s position on exclusive social clubs is just one example. Harvard has multiple illiberal policies in place that punish students and faculty for unpopular speech and imperil their individual freedom.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has given Harvard a “Red Light” rating for its policies, meaning the institution has at least one policy that “clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.”
In fact, it has several.
One such regulation requires student organizations to obtain approval from Harvard’s Office of Student Life prior to distributing printed materials anywhere on campus. This means that student groups that want to advertise events, find new members or hand out literature must have the content of their messages approved before taking any action. At a public university, such a policy would be unconstitutional censorship. At Harvard, it is yet another example of administrative intolerance.
Harvard’s intolerance was also on display last year when the school used its power to police private communication between individuals. Before the beginning of the fall semester, the university rescinded admission to 10 incoming freshmen students because of the students’ involvement in a private group chat where they created and exchanged “obscene” memes.
Also in 2016, the university chose to punish the entire men’s cross country team for “crude” comments made by past team members. Harvard placed the team on athletic probation for sometimes-explicit comments, made years ago in privately circulated documents, about the women’s team.
Harvard also punished the men’s soccer team because of lewd — but private — annual “scouting reports” in which players rated the appearance of female soccer recruits. For that offense, the university canceled the team’s games for the year and initiated a Title IX investigation.
To be sure, the students in all three cases made poor choices. But Harvard’s decision to punish them for insensitive private jokes is another attempt to force others to conform — not only in their actions but in their private conversations — with the university’s own subjective values.
Tolerance of opinions one does not agree with is a linchpin of civil society and liberal education. A university cannot pursue truth, invite inquiry, or encourage the personal and moral development of students in an environment of intolerance.
John Stuart Mill said it best in “On Liberty:” “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”
Harvard’s actions and policies have shown that the university values conformity over debate and narrow dogma over open inquiry. Harvard’s intolerance has caused it to abandon the most fundamental mission of education: the pursuit of truth.
Jenna A. Robinson is president of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal in Raleigh, N.C. She serves on the North Carolina Advisory Committee for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.