Students Aren’t the Obstacle to Open Debate at Harvard

It is us: faculty and administrators who are too afraid—of random people on social media, hard-core activists, irritable alumni, assorted “friends” of Harvard—to allow a culture of open debate and dialogue to flourish.
It is us: faculty and administrators who are too afraid—of random people on social media, hard-core activists, irritable alumni, assorted “friends” of Harvard—to allow a culture of open debate and dialogue to flourish.

Summary

They want to hear a range of challenging views, but faculty and administrators are afraid to discipline a handful of disruptive radicals.

Professors hear a great deal these days about how hard it is to get our students to listen to, much less to engage with, opinions they dislike. The problem, we are told, is that students are either “snowflakes" with fragile psyches or “authoritarians" who care more about their pet causes than about democratic values such as tolerance, compromise and respect for opposing points of view.

Students at Harvard, where I teach, returned from winter break in January to an institution that appeared determined to tackle this problem head-on. An email from the undergraduate dean reminded them that “The purpose of a Harvard education is not to shield you from ideas you dislike or to silence people you disagree with; it is to enable you to confront challenging ideas, interrogate your own beliefs, make up your mind and learn to think for yourself."

To that end, the university launched the “Harvard Dialogues," a series of events “designed to enhance our ability to engage in respectful and robust debate." But so far, the effort seems to consist of little more than talking about talking, with events with titles like “Coming Together Across Difference: Finding Common Ground Across Identities and Political Divides" and “Constructive Dialogue in the Age of Social Media." Absent from this agenda are real discussions about the actual things that divide us, such as abortion, climate change and Israel-Palestine.

The fact of the matter is that the problem is not our students. It is us: faculty and administrators who are too afraid—of random people on social media, hard-core activists, irritable alumni, assorted “friends" of Harvard—to allow a culture of open debate and dialogue to flourish. This was driven home to me recently when I tried to contribute to the cause of fostering constructive debate on campus by launching a series of conversations on the crisis in the Middle East with individuals from across the political spectrum in the U.S. and the region. Participants in the series include former Trump administration official Jared Kushner, former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and former Israeli parliamentarian Einat Wilf.

No sooner had I begun congratulating myself on assembling such a diverse set of interlocutors than the recriminations began. First came the anger at my decision to invite Kushner (which was not unexpected, given the zip code I inhabit). Then, more alarmingly, the Daily Wire revealed that one of the other participants in my series, a young Palestinian professor named Dalal Saeb Iriqat, had posted tweets calling Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks a “normal struggle for freedom," doubting basic facts about the atrocities committed that day and blaming Israel for everything.

It did not matter to critics that some of Iriqat’s most objectionable tweets were written before the full scale of Hamas’s depravity was known, or that she is a proponent of the two-state solution and a periodic contributor to Haaretz (a left-wing Israeli newspaper), or that her blaming of Israel for the violence represents a fairly mainstream view among Palestinian elites. Nor did it matter that she was invited not to give a speech but to answer questions from me and my students. Fox News, the New York Post and the Daily Mail all screamed some variant of “Harvard platforms pro-Hamas radical!"

The institutional response was instant and ignominious. The Kennedy School rushed out a statement distancing itself from me and my enterprise and assuring the world of our dean’s personal opposition to terrorism. An administrator called to scold me for not performing better due diligence on the speaker and to complain about the time they were now forced to spend calming down donors and caring for staff members who allegedly felt “unsafe." Even some of those whom you’d expect to be stalwart defenders of free speech on campus went wobbly: A couple of fellow members of a mailing list of intellectually heterodox faculty suggested that I might wish to disinvite Iriqat, lamenting the harm that her visit could do to our cause.

If my administrators and some of my colleagues collectively acted like a pizzeria owner after a bad Yelp review, my students were, by contrast, eager to actually do the thing that our university talks so much about doing. When I announced Kushner’s visit, the event sold out in minutes; most of the complaints I heard were from those unable to get tickets. When the scandal about my Palestinian guest broke, my Israeli students—whom you could have forgiven for being aggrieved by that news—instead reached out with words of encouragement. One even wrote a supportive editorial in the Jerusalem Post declaring that “Harvard’s role should be to provide a platform for intellectual debate, exposing the flaws in [the speaker’s] ideas" rather than seeking to silence them.

Many students told me that they would relish the opportunity to publicly challenge an anti-Israel perspective that they feel is widespread on campus. When self-described pro-Palestine students and faculty circulated a crudely antisemitic cartoon just this week, blaming Jews for oppressing Blacks and Arabs, administrators responded with an email of condemnation. Our best students want to go further, confronting such views on the battlefield of ideas. That doesn’t mean we should throw open the doors to every extremist, but it does mean that we should seize the opportunity to listen to and argue with a fairly typical professor from Ramallah.

I was not surprised that my students showed a surer grasp of what Harvard is for than many of my colleagues. This episode was not my first encounter with the phenomenon of a university too fearful to let us argue.

Last semester, a junior lecturer in the history department and I proposed to Harvard’s General Education Program a course titled “Hard Questions: Searching for Veritas Across Deep Divides," which aimed “to teach students how to argue with courage, passion, grace and style—and, above all, openness." The core of the course was to be a series of encounters with some of the most polarizing debates in contemporary academia, including the legacy of colonialism (was it all bad?), the impact of affirmative action (is it justice or discrimination?) and the nature of gender (is it a biological fact or a social fiction?).

For each issue, we proposed bringing to class the most powerful exponents on both sides of the divide. We wanted to demonstrate to undergraduates that the right way to engage any argument—whether you agree or disagree with it—is through respectful but probing and insistent questioning. Given our leaders’ frequent testimonials to the virtues of vigorous disagreement, we thought that approval of our course was certain. Instead, after some back-and-forth with the vetting committee about the possibility of classroom blowups and public blowback, it was rejected.

You might wonder whether I am being uncharitable to my colleagues and too charitable to our students. After all, we have all read stories of student activists disrupting classes and shutting down events with speakers they don’t like. Don’t the students bear some—maybe even most—of the blame for the fact that we cannot have real conversations on campus? I don’t think so. The number of students willing to stand up in a class or at a public event and start shouting into a bullhorn is vanishingly small, and they are emboldened to do so by the knowledge that our administration is too timid to stop them.

I saw this firsthand last October, when a small group of protesters invaded an event I hosted on the 50th anniversary of the Arab oil embargo, objecting to the presence of two speakers with ties to the fossil-fuel industry. While the six demonstrators were busy making it impossible for our audience of 90 to see or hear the panelists, the administrators on the scene could only plead their inability to interfere with the protesters’ right to free expression.

Thus, when the leaders of Harvard talk about the need to foster healthy debate, it is hard for me to take them seriously. And when they blame our students for the cramped confines of discourse on campus, I can’t help thinking that they’re deceiving either us or themselves. Part of me just wants them to be honest: to spare our inboxes the pious messages about free inquiry, to admit that maintaining calm and fending off online unpleasantness are their highest priorities and to let our students know that Harvard is not really in the business of preparing them to grapple with the world’s complexities.

The better part of me, however, hopes that they really are serious about wanting Harvard to be a place dedicated to the fearless search for truth and that they’ll step up and lend a hand to those of us actually trying to make it so. I know our students can handle it.

Tarek Masoud teaches at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

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