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Nearly 100 Harvard professors unite to protect ‘thinkers, oddballs, and nonconformists’

‘When necessary, we will hold the university accountable,’ co-leader said

More than 90 Harvard University faculty have joined a recently formed Council on Academic Freedom at the university to promote and defend First Amendment ideals and intellectual diversity on campus.

“I’m hoping we can restore some of the dignity and respect that universities, and Harvard in particular, used to grant unconventional thinkers, oddballs, and nonconformists, who have always been the source of the most important new ideas,” Council Co-Leader and computer science Professor Harry Lewis told The College Fix.

The group plans to organize workshops, host guest lecturers, and teach courses, Council Co-Leader and Harvard Professor Flynn Cratty stated in an April 20 university news release.

“When necessary, we will also hold the university accountable so that it lives up to its stated principles,” Cratty stated.

“We will help ensure that campus leaders respect Harvard’s commitments to academic freedom,” Cratty stated. “We will protest if those freedoms are violated. We will also provide solidarity with Harvard scholars who are threatened with penalty because of their speech.”

Psychology professor and prominent author Steven Pinker and psychobiology Professor Bertha Madras announced the formation of the council as an organization devoted to “free inquiry, intellectual diversity, and civil discourse” on April 12 in an article published in the Boston Globe.

“Not all is well for more vulnerable colleagues and students,” Pinker wrote. “More than half of our students say they are uncomfortable expressing views on controversial issues in class.”

In November 2022, a few Harvard faculty members met over dinner to discuss the condition of free speech on their campus, according to the council’s website.

They concluded the university needed an organization led by faculty to “advocate for the free and civil exchange of ideas on campus.”

The group officially launched in March with more than 50 members from various academic concentrations, the website stated.

The Fix emailed University Provost Alan Garber for comment about the council. University Spokesperson Jason Newton responding, saying Harvard “does not have a comment to provide.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has noted Harvard’s failures to protect free speech on campus.

“Over the past two decades, scholars at Harvard have faced the most sanction attempts for their unorthodox speech of any college in the country,” FIRE Researcher Jeff Cieslikowski told The Fix via email. “Twelve of these attempts resulted in a sanction against the scholar. This figure, too, is the worst among all colleges in the United States.”

Harvard was ranked 170 out of 203 in FIRE’s 2023 Free Speech Rankings, with performance in most components ranging from “mediocre” to “poor,” Cieslikowski said.

“In the face of such a grim climate for free speech, these Harvard faculty are showing real courage by defying the status quo,” Cieslikowski said.

“Faculty can sow the seeds for a culture of free speech. Indeed, they serve as leaders and role models to students,” Cieslikowski told The Fix. “Hopefully, the Harvard faculty involved in the new council can initiate through their example a culture of free and open inquiry at Harvard.”

One professor said Harvard is no longer a home for nonconformists, but the council gives him hope

Professor Lewis told The Fix that things have shifted since he arrived at Harvard as an undergraduate in 1964.

“One change that is very striking to me is how little discussion there is of nonconformity, which was once considered a virtue,” Lewis said. “We of course talk about diversity, but almost always coupled with belonging, and nonconformists almost by definition are people who proudly don’t belong.”

However, Lewis is optimistic about the impact the council will have on Harvard due to the number of his colleagues who “signed onto the idea that freedom of thought and of speech need defending these days,” he said.

Bertha Madras and council co-leaders Jeffrey Flier, Jeannie Suk Gersen, Edward Hall, Jane Kamensky, Steven Pinker, and Flynn Cratty were reached out by The Fix for comment; no response has been received.

This is not the first pro-free speech group formed by Harvard affiliates. Harvard Alumni for Free Speech was founded in January 2023 after Board of Director George Kurzon discovered Harvard ranked in the bottom 20 percent and bottom 17 percent in FIRE’s 2021 and 2022 Free Speech Rankings, respectively.

In December 2022, more than 200 Harvard faculty, students and alumni signed a petition calling for the next Harvard University president to champion free speech for the sake of the university’s integrity and reputation, The Fix reported.

MORE: Attempted punishments of controversial scholars skyrocketed in recent years: report

IMAGE: Harvard University

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About the Author
Haika Mrema -- Baylor University