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An illustration of multiple featureless black faces with red tape over where their mouths would be.

Lawrence D. Bobo, dean of Harvard University’s Division of Social Science, has angered faculty members and others outside the university with his op-ed.

Photo illustration by Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed | Rawpixel

In this moment of intense public and political scrutiny of American higher education, Harvard University has been a major mark.

The day of Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel, over 30 Harvard student groups signed a letter saying they “hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.” Since then, the university has faced continual scrutiny from media, donors, conservative activists, the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, members of Congress and its own faculty members. Harvard’s then president Claudine Gay was among the first university leaders to be called to testify before Congress. There have been allegations of campus antisemitism, accusations of plagiarism against Gay and further criticisms that the university didn’t properly defend itself or Gay against the critics.

Gay resigned in early January following her widely panned congressional testimony on campus antisemitism, fueling more criticism of the university for how it handled the accusations against its first Black president. And the hits have kept coming at Harvard, including a subpoena from House Republicans in their still-ongoing antisemitism investigation and a series of New York Times articles about continued controversies over resignations or threatened resignations from Harvard’s successive advisory groups on countering antisemitism.

Amid these public conflagrations, prominent faculty members such as Steven Pinker and former Harvard president Lawrence Summers have been outspoken in their critiques of the university’s handling of antisemitism complaints and its response to pro-Palestine campus protests. In a January post on X, where he has over 300,000 followers, Summers said his “confidence in Harvard leadership’s ability and will to confront antisemitism and the demonization of Israel continues to decline. Unfortunately, it is becoming ever clearer why Harvard ranks first on antisemitism, even as it ranks last on upholding free speech.”

Then, on June 15, Lawrence D. Bobo, dean of Harvard’s Division of Social Science, called for the faculty to stop publicly airing their grievances. Writing in the Harvard Crimson student newspaper, Bobo decried “the appallingly rough manner in which prominent affiliates, including one former university president, publicly denounced Harvard’s students and present leadership.” He then posed two questions and answered them himself.

“Is it outside the bounds of acceptable professional conduct for a faculty member to excoriate university leadership, faculty, staff or students with the intent to arouse external intervention into university business? And does the broad publication of such views cross a line into sanctionable violations of professional conduct?” Bobo asked. “Yes it is and yes it does.”

Bobo further wrote that “as the events of the past year evidence, sharply critical speech from faculty, prominent ones especially, can attract outside attention that directly impedes the university’s function. A faculty member’s right to free speech does not amount to a blank check to engage in behaviors that plainly incite external actors—be it the media, alumni, donors, federal agencies, or the government—to intervene in Harvard’s affairs.”

His call for faculty members to shut up in public immediately backfired. Instead of stifling faculty criticism, Bobo ended up attracting more denunciations of both himself and Harvard, alongside a torrent of articles published in one of those “external actors”—the media—excoriating him and, sometimes, the institution as well.

Steven McGuire, the Paul and Karen Levy Fellow in Campus Freedom at the conservative American Council of Trustees and Alumni, told Inside Higher Ed that Bobo “himself has done exactly what he’s saying faculty should be punished for.” McGuire said Bobo’s “response to the criticisms just further exemplifies that the criticisms are justified.”

The morning after Bobo’s op-ed appeared, Conor Friedersdorf, an Atlantic staff writer, posted on X that “Bobo’s op-ed has incited me, an external actor, to publicly lament the subset of Harvard leaders who neither understand nor support free speech. By his logic, I guess he needs to be sanctioned.”

The next day, Minding the Campus, a website sponsored by the conservative National Association of Scholars, published a response to Bobo from McGuire and Samuel J. Abrams, a politics professor at Sarah Lawrence College. “Instead of recognizing that Harvard is under intense scrutiny and suffering a reputational crisis because it has proven itself to be morally and intellectually corrupt,” they wrote, “Professor Bobo thinks the way to restore calm to campus is to weaken the academic freedom of Harvard’s faculty even further.”

But this didn’t end up being only a conservative pile-on. The Crimson and The Boston Globe wrote news articles on the backlash, and on June 19, the leaders of Harvard’s own Council on Academic Freedom, a faculty group that formed in March 2023, denounced Bobo’s op-ed in another piece in the Crimson. The leaders said it was “an unprecedented repudiation of the principle of academic freedom” and that it’s “downright alarming that such a stunning argument would come from a dean who currently wields power over hundreds of professors—without indicating that he would refrain from implementing his views by punishing the faculty he oversees.”

Last Wednesday also brought another conservative critique, but one from another significant newspaper. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board opined that “Harvard has some slow learners, especially in the dean’s office.”

Friday brought a double whammy. The Atlantic published an opinion piece by a co-president of the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard saying Bobo had called for a “frontal assault on academic freedom.” And The Chronicle of Higher Education ran another opinion piece (headline: “A Harvard Dean’s Assault on Faculty Speech”) by the founding chair of the Academic Freedom Alliance as the central story on its website.

In response to Inside Higher Ed’s requests for an interview or to answer written questions, Bobo initially emailed the same statement he sent the Crimson. It said, “The Crimson op-ed expresses my personal views as a member of the faculty, seeking to put important questions before the wider Harvard community.” On Tuesday, he provided Inside Higher Ed, through a spokesman, a slightly longer statement saying his op-ed “was not intended as a policy statement for the Division [of Social Science] or the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.”

In the online outlet Persuasion, Alex Morey—who leads the campus rights advocacy team at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a free speech group that rates Harvard “abysmal” in its College Free Speech Rankings—called Bobo’s statement that he was speaking as a faculty member “icing on the multi-layered irony cake.” Morey wrote that “there’s another name for that: academic freedom.”

A Harvard spokesperson wrote in an email that Bobo’s views “are his own and do not represent a position of Harvard University.” But while public criticism of Bobo’s call to muzzle faculty members was universal, buried under the avalanche of denunciations is an ongoing debate: When should “external actors” intervene in universities, and which kinds of external actors should have this right? It’s something that free speech advocates—some of whom could be called external actors themselves—disagree over.

Everyone’s a Critic

Last year, before Oct. 7 and the ensuing campus tumult, Princeton University’s conservative James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions released the “Princeton Principles for a Campus Culture of Free Inquiry.” The principles—despite the name, they haven’t been endorsed by the university’s leaders—go beyond the widely adopted Chicago principles on campus free expression.

The Princeton principles say it can’t always be left to those on campus to ensure that free speech and academic freedom prevail. They explicitly open the door to outside intervention for the express purpose of defending “free inquiry.”

“If there is clear and convincing evidence that faculty members and administrators are not adequately fulfilling their responsibilities to foster and defend a culture of free inquiry on campus, other agents including regents, trustees, students and alumni groups in the wider campus network may and indeed should become involved,” the Princeton principles say.

The principles further say that “trustees and regents should also oppose and resist government mandates that would harm the honest pursuit of truth and the cultivation of free inquiry, such as bans on disfavored topics and subjects.” But the principles don’t completely rule out government intervention, saying it “should be a last resort” and can “legitimately prohibit speech codes and related policies that inhibit or punish speech protected by free speech jurisprudence and academic freedom.”

Donald Downs, the Alexander Meiklejohn Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and one of the principles’ developers, said Bobo’s op-ed is “the opposite of everything we stand for.” Downs said the principles—like the more well-known free speech statements—say academic freedom should extend to professors speaking about their own university. He argued university professors are in positions to know more about what’s going on inside their institutions.

Downs denounced external intervention into classrooms. “That would be the end of academic freedom—that you can start dictating what’s taught in class—you know, there’s been enough of that internally going on with DEI offices,” he said. Pointing to Florida, where an attorney defending a state law this month went as far as saying the Legislature could prevent professors from criticizing Governor Ron DeSantis’s administration in their classrooms if it wanted to, Downs said, “What DeSantis is doing is destructive, and he’s giving a bad name to the free speech movement in the process.”

But, as for when external intervention is justified, Downs said, “Any external involvement should be to ensure protecting academic freedom.”

The definition of an “external actor” is itself in dispute. Unlike Bobo, McGuire, with the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, said he “wouldn’t necessarily call donors, and certainly not alumni, external actors.” Universities interact with alumni to benefit from their donations, their prestige and their ability to place graduates in jobs, McGuire said, “so I think to turn around and say that alumni are external actors is actually insulting and shortsighted.”

“To suggest that these are external actors that are illegitimately pressuring the university I think is incorrect and doesn’t give alumni and donors their due as people who are contributing to the Harvard community,” McGuire said. “To take somebody’s money,” and then call them external actors when they raise concerns about how it’s used, “I think is ungrateful,” he said.

Further, McGuire noted that Harvard, while a private institution, is still tax-exempt and subject to federal laws such as Titles VI and IX. Universities, he said, need to recognize that “they exist in the midst of a community and they owe things to the community beyond their campus.”

The American Association of University Professors has strongly resisted outside interference in universities by pretty much anyone. “The operation of the institution, generally speaking, especially academic matters, should be left to primarily faculty and the administration and governing board,” said Michael DeCesare, a senior program officer with the AAUP’s Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure and Governance. DeCesare said alumni and donors may have interests that “may very well be at odds with the interests of the institution in education, so I would be concerned about external influence, really, under any circumstances.”

And it’s because universities serve a greater community, DeCesare said, that their independence is critical. “Colleges and universities are supposed to be autonomous institutions; they’re supposed to be conducted for the common good, and that’s why their autonomy is so important to maintain,” he said.

Summers, the former Harvard president, said it’s “very surprising and troubling that the university’s leadership has not rejected [Bobo’s] notion after it has been energetically put forward by someone who has authority over salary setting, promotions and the allocation of resources.” But, Summers also said, “the question of external actors is a very complex one.”

“Donors obviously have the option of funding the university or not funding the university and for centuries have given gifts with specific terms,” Summers said. “Harvard and other universities have celebrated Title IX interventions in university policy and supported various other regulations on universities.”

Summers concluded, though, that it’s wrong “when any external actor tries to purge any particular set of ideas—as the unhappy history of McCarthyism and much else suggests.”

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