On May 5, 1941, in the bleakest days of World War II, with most of Europe under Nazi or Communist domination, Life Magazine devoted its cover story to Harvard University. The article began portentously:
The names of Alexandria, Padua, Paris, Heidelberg, Gottingen, Oxford and Cambridge are deathless, because each in its time has been a world center for man’s learning and his search for truth. To that roll has been added the name of Harvard, America’s oldest, the New World’s greatest and the world’s richest university. Today it stands alone. On the European continent the universities have been engulfed by a tyranny that recognizes no truth but the perversion of propaganda …. In the fourth year of its fourth century, Harvard must re-examine the purposes that justify its existence, count its resources and consider how it shall serve man in his unknown future.
The article deemed Harvard mankind’s academic beacon, its last best hope to preserve the flame of free inquiry in a darkening age.
Things haven’t quite worked out that way.
Visit Harvard today and one sees, not the last best hope for free inquiry, but an environment hostile, if not toxic, to the Bill of Rights and the values underlying them.
The latest symptom occurred in the aftermath of a demonstration calling for the abolition of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The demonstration was staged by Harvard College Act on a Dream, an immigrant advocacy group. It attracted a crowd of about one hundred people. The Harvard Crimson, the main campus newspaper, published a generally sympathetic story, quoting several of the organizers, one of whom happened to be a Crimson editorial executive.
And there the story, like the event, would have quickly faded — but for the inclusion in the article of one, seemingly routine sentence: “ICE did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday night.”
The fact that the Harvard Crimson had contacted ICE for comment generated a firestorm of controversy. The demonstration organizers started a petition accusing the Crimson of endangering aliens, and condemning the newspaper for its “cultural insensitivity.” The petition demanded that the Crimson, first, “apologize for the harm they inflicted on the undocumented community”; second, “critically engage with and change their policies” concerning contacting ICE; and third, “declare their commitment to protecting undocumented students.”
In short, the petition demanded that Harvard’s main campus newspaper cease practicing journalism and convert itself into an advocacy organization.
It would be reassuring to report that the petition was summarily dismissed as a bit of lunatic fringe hysteria. But that’s not what happened. Instead, campus organizations lined up to support the petition, including such presumably mainstream groups as Harvard College Democrats, Harvard College Democrats for Warren, and Harvard Women in Computer Science. Within days, the petition had garnered over 670 signatures from the Harvard community.
To its credit, the Crimson did not apologize for committing the sin of following standard journalism practice in contacting the subject of a demonstration for comment. But the editors did invite the demonstration organizers to meet with them in person to voice their concerns. Following that meeting, the Crimson published a “Note to Readers,” assuring the public that in the newspaper’s “communication with ICE’s media office, the reporters did not provide the names or immigration statuses of any individual at the protest.”
The Note did little to allay concerns. In fact, it seems to have generated a backlash among Crimson writers themselves. One contributing opinion writer condemned the newspaper for “attempting to provide a ‘balanced’ perspective on deportation.” The writer opined: “In pursuing objectivity, we silence the marginalized.” An associate editorial editor tweeted that “it pains me to feel unsafe in the building I have devoted countless hours to.” Another member of the editorial staff tweeted that the newspaper’s decision to continue reaching out to subjects of demonstrations for comment was “antithetical to our journalistic values of reporting with sensitivity.”
The University is not responsible for every act of extreme wokehood committed on the campus. But such events do not occur in a vacuum. If a sizable portion of Harvard students condemn the college newspaper for practicing journalism, it is not because these students are ignorant of freedom of the press. It is because these students object to freedom of the press. And if they object to freedom of the press, it is not because they were taught to think that way when they were growing up and attending high school. It is because they were exposed to such thinking after they arrived at Harvard.
The students who condemned the Crimson for seeking comment from ICE live and study in an environment holding little regard for constitutional values.
Last June, Harvard removed Ronald S. Sullivan from his post as co-Faculty Dean (along with his wife) of Winthrop House. Sullivan, a law professor and practicing attorney, had become an object of controversy after joining the Harvey Weinstein defense team. Rather than use the occasion to teach students about the constitutional guarantees of due process and assistance of counsel, the University responded to the controversy by undertaking a “climate review” to address the concerns of Winthrop House residents over Sullivan’s decision to join the Weinstein defense team. The review led to the removal of Dean Sullivan.
In May 2016, the University decided that students belonging to off-campus single-gender social organizations would be banned from holding athletic team captaincies and leadership positions in all recognized student groups. They will also be ineligible for endorsement for Rhodes, Marshall, and other prestigious fellowships. The value of belonging to such organizations — whether all-male fraternities or all-female sororities — has long sparked debate. Whether such memberships are good or bad, the controversy presented an opportunity for the University to teach its students about the right of free association. But again, Harvard came down on the side of denigrating a liberty enshrined in the Bill of Rights.
Throughout this period, Harvard has been in the forefront of academia’s war on obnoxious speech (usually the only kind of speech requiring protection). The Harvard College Handbook for Students prohibits racial harassment, which it defines as: “using racial epithets, making racially derogatory remarks, and using racial stereotypes.” By that broad definition, a student’s condemnation of “the white male patriarchy” could be barred as “racially derogatory.” Expressing the view that, because of their unique historical experience, African Americans are particularly sensitive to the use of excessive force by police, could be prohibited as “using racial stereotypes.”
As a private organization, Harvard is not required to enforce constitutional rights. But it should at least respect constitutional values, and seek ways to imbue that respect in its student body. But again and again, the University does the opposite.
That is why the rush to endorse the Harvard College Act on a Dream petition should not shock. It is the result of the University’s practice of educating and graduating cadres of bright young men and women unburdened by any particular appreciation of or even acquaintance with freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of association, and due process.
Those principles must have seemed very important when Life devoted its cover story to Harvard, and deemed it the world’s last center for learning and the search for truth. But that was then. Today, on campus, those principles are as dated as an old, defunct magazine filled with black and white photographs.