Harvard Should Say Less. Maybe All Schools Should.

Last fall, Harvard University’s leadership found itself at the center of a highly public, highly charged fight about taking an official institutional position in connection with the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel and the war in Gaza.

First, critics denounced the school for being too slow to issue a statement on the matter. Then, after a statement was released by Harvard’s president, Claudine Gay, and 17 other senior Harvard officials, some critics attacked it for being insufficiently forceful in condemning the Hamas attack, while others criticized it for being insufficiently forceful in condemning Israel’s retaliation.

One of the many sources of confusion at the time was that Harvard, like many other universities, did not have a formal policy on when and whether to issue official statements. In the absence of a policy, Harvard not only had to figure out what to say or not say; it also had to deal with the perception that not issuing a statement, or not issuing one fast enough, would in effect be a statement, too.

Fortunately, Harvard now does have official guidance for a policy on university statements, in the form of a report issued on Tuesday by a faculty working group on which we served together as chairs, and endorsed by the president, provost and deans. The report recommends a policy based on both principle and pragmatism, one that we hope can enable Harvard — and any other school that might consider adopting a similar policy — to flourish in our highly polarized political era.

In brief, the report says that university leaders can and should speak out publicly to promote and protect the core function of the university, which is to create an environment suitable for pursuing truth through research, scholarship and teaching. If, for example, Donald Trump presses forward with his announced plan to take “billions and billions of dollars” from large university endowments to create an “American Academy” — a free, online school that would provide an “alternative” to current institutions — Harvard’s leadership can and should express its objections to this terrible idea.

It makes sense for university leaders to speak out on matters concerning the core function of the institution: That is their area of expertise as presidents, provosts and deans. But they should not, the report says, take official stands on other matters. They should not, for instance, issue statements of solidarity with Ukraine after Russia’s invasion, no matter how morally attractive or even correct that sentiment might be.

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