On May 25, Harvard’s Class of 2017 celebrated the end of their academic year with an ironic graduation ceremony. Over the past several years, Harvard has made headlines by having well-known Commencement Day speakers. In the past, Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg have addressed the school’s graduating class. This year’s ceremony was no different, as the founder and CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, was the primary speaker.
However, Zuckerberg’s speech was arguably not the most memorable or headline grabbing of the day. During the ceremony, Harvard’s President Drew Gilpin Faust also gave a speech. In her address, she took time to discuss her university’s “most important” value: free speech.
Harvard Supports Free Speech
First, President Faust answered why free speech is so important at colleges. Linking the pursuit of knowledge to the ability to both freely express one’s own inquiries and challenge the inquiries of others, Faust explained why an institution of higher education requires free speech rights:
Universities must be places open to the kind of debate that can change ideas and committed to standards of reason and evidence that form the bases for evaluating them.
Silencing ideas or basking in intellectual orthodoxy independent of facts and evidence impedes our access to new and better ideas, and it inhibits a full and considered rejection of bad ones.
Next, Faust discussed why free speech is being challenged on college campuses today. Citing the highly polarized environments on college campuses, she discussed the rising tensions that increasingly accompany communities of diverse backgrounds.
Universities themselves have changed dramatically in recent years, reaching beyond their traditional, largely homogeneous populations to become more diverse than perhaps any other institution in which Americans find themselves living together. Once overwhelmingly white, male, Protestant, and upper class, Harvard College is now half female, majority minority, religiously pluralistic, with nearly 60 percent of students able to attend because of financial aid.
Lastly, Faust offered her thoughts on how challenges to free speech must be met. Faust discussed how there must be a shift in perception around issues of free expression. People should perceive free speech not as a means of violence, but as a social lubricant necessary for communal cohesion.
Ensuring freedom of speech is not just about allowing speech. It is about actively creating a community where everyone can contribute and flourish, a community where argument is relished, not feared. Freedom of speech is not just freedom from censorship; it is freedom to actively join the debate as a full participant. It is about creating a context in which genuine debate can happen.
Policies Speak Louder Than Speeches
The general principles of Faust’s speech deserve praise and agreement. However, a fifteen minute speech is all it is. Harvard is still nationally known as a college with deplorable free speech policies in its student handbook and campus policies.
At one point, President Faust stated that “the price of our commitment to freedom of speech is paid disproportionately by [minority students]. For them, free speech has not infrequently included enduring a questioning of their abilities, their humanity, their morality — their very legitimacy here.”
Of course, this is a ludicrous statement on many levels. On one hand, Faust shames her campus for questioning the abilities of minority students. Yet, she prefaces this complaint by claiming that minority students struggle to live with free speech more than white students. This collectivist mindset is both unhelpful and belittling.
Ironically, if a Harvard student repeated verbatim President Faust’s statements on this topic, that student could be punished. Such a student would potentially face charges for violating Harvard’s ridiculously vague harassment policy. Under this policy, merely demeaning speech based on one’s racial or ethnic background can be investigated and punished by administrators.
In the end, if President Faust truly meant what she said this past week, then her university would have to drastically alter certain sections of its 2017-2018 student handbook.