Harvard's Attack on Student Freedom

In the span of 119 words, Harvard has opened up a new controversy regarding free speech in higher education and the place our institutions should hold in molding their students’ minds. With its new "Class of 2015 Freshman Pledge," the first such pledge in Harvard's 375-year history, Harvard asks incoming freshmen to sign a statement saying that they are "expected to act with integrity, respect, and industry, and to sustain a community characterized by inclusiveness and civility." While the sentiments of the statement are admirable and agreeable to many (myself included), the moral impulse behind them has troubling implications for students’ intellectual autonomy.  

In theory, the Harvard pledge is voluntary, and students are free to affirm it or not. But are they really? Initially, officials in Harvard's residence halls planned to hang signed copies of the pledges by the entranceways of the dorms, making it plainly clear which of their residents had declined to sign, a decision likely to push students to sign the pledge, even if they would rather not. Though Harvard eventually changed its mind on displaying students’ signatures, the message of expectations had been sent.

But what's so bad about the Harvard pledge, even if it were made compulsory? After all, many or most people value things like "respect," "inclusiveness," and "civility" most of the time, in their own ways. In fact, that is precisely the problem. Students define such concepts and how they value them in their own ways, and they will change their ideas of such terms as they progress in their education.

Signing Harvard's pledge essentially commits students to take an oath of upholding Harvard's official values and the college dean's official interpretations of what those values mean. Prescribing moral values in this way seems hardly befitting of the world's most prestigious research institution, one which proudly commits itself in policy to free speech and spirited debate.

Such pledges (and Harvard is hardly the first institution to have one) become even more of a problem when one considers the already politicized nature of the college campus today. Colleges are rife with unconstitutional and illiberal speech codes whose main effect is to sanction and censor politically unpopular speech, including sincere debates about difficult but important topics like: immigration; affirmative action; religion; abortion; and gay marriage. 

Extended further, such attempts at social control can have odious results. Last year at Hamilton College, for instance, all male freshmen were ordered to attend a sexual assault seminar billed as an "intervention," which would pressure them to admit their complicity in creating and prolonging a "rape culture." At the University of Delaware in 2007, all 7,000 residents of the university's dorms were required to take part in a remedial education program that coerced and humiliated students into accepting university-approved stances on highly personal matters. Such activities in this program (referred to by the university in its own materials as a "treatment") included one-on-one sessions where students were forced to answer extremely intrusive questions about their sexual orientation. (Both the Hamilton and Delaware programs were made optional after intervention from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, my employer.)

Such invasive thought reform programs stand quite apart from Harvard’s simple pledge, obviously. But it’s not too much of a stretch to say that the philosophies behind them all are of the same species, playing at the dangerous double standard of "tolerance" embraced by growing numbers of college administrators, that we as a society can't be truly tolerant so long as there are people in our midst who are less open-minded and inclusive than ourselves. In reality, of course, coercing others into seeing our way through, say, mandatory group discussions where non-minority students are made to feel ashamed of their supposed "privilege" (as happened in the UD program), is not tolerant at all; it is the very opposite of liberalism.

The Supreme Court's landmark 1943 decision in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, cited by former Harvard College Dean Harry Lewis in his stirring critique of the new Harvard pledge (and a case that concerned our national Pledge of Allegiance, no less), famously stated that, "Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard." Sadly, this concept is increasingly unheeded by our colleges, who are ever more insistent that their students are arriving with the "wrong" values and unable to come up with the "right" ones on their own.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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