“Fine for Me, But Not for Thee”

Kali Jerrard

CounterCurrent: Week of 06/24/2024

The Harvard saga continues to unfold.

As we discussed last week, Lawrence Bobo, Harvard’s dean of social science, has brought outside scrutiny upon the university after his statement that professors should be sanctioned for speaking against the institution. While Bobo’s opinion is not official school policy, his position at Harvard is a powerful one—one that holds sway over other leadership and staff—and as such, his words carry weight.

Academic freedom should be upheld by higher education as paramount to an institution’s health and vitality. To sanction faculty who point out failings of a university while enjoying the ability to utilize that very same academic freedom denied to others is hypocrisy at its finest. 

Bobo’s words are not official school policy, but it is alarming that a leader in the institution holds such a position on academic freedom. Bobo’s “fine for me, but not for thee” position is a clear example of the chilling effect on Harvard’s campus. The interim president and other university leadership has yet to denounce Bobo’s position as one that the university itself does not, and will not, adhere to. Such a statement by the university would be wise, given the previous failures to draw a line in the sand on what the institution stands for and will not tolerate on campus—you would think they had learned their lesson already. 

One thing is for certain, Bobo’s statement is drawing faculty together to defend their right to academic freedom. Some faculty have responded personally to Bobo. Members of the Council for Academic Freedom at Harvard, which mostly includes faculty from Harvard’s professional schools rather than the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), wrote a letter. However, the majority of the FAS were notably absent from responding, could it be from fear of retribution by Bobo’s position in FAS leadership?

In the wake of criticism and faculty responses, Bobo has tried to clarify his stance, asserting that his views are his own, and his own alone. A Harvard spokesperson—not leadership—stated that Bobo’s views do not represent a position of the university. Some are skeptical about these assurances. In an article on Minding the Campus, Samuel J. Abram and Steven McGuire voice their concern over how the university has failed to condemn the dean’s stance and even call for Bobo’s removal. They explain, 

Even though Bobo has indicated he would not respect the academic freedom of his colleagues, he still enjoys its protections and has a right to make his opinions known. At the same time, a university needs to be led by people who believe in and are ready to defend its core principles and purposes. Bobo’s op-ed should not affect his position as a faculty member at Harvard, but it is unclear how faculty can trust a dean who thinks faculty should be punished for publicly criticizing the university; Bobo’s standing is now completely compromised, and faculty cannot trust him in a position of such powerful authority and influence.  

It is apparent that Harvard University is in need of reform. Alumni, members of the public, and even donors have expressed concern or outright distrust of Harvard’s trajectory. Even former Harvard President Lawrence Summers commented that he was “stunned that a Harvard dean would call for censuring any faculty members’ comments on university affairs” and called Bobo’s view “an obvious intrusion on academic freedom.” The negative press and external pressure swirling around the institution has yet to elicit change. Though perhaps the combination of outside pressure and intrepid faculty, the ruckus created by calls for change will no longer fall on deaf ears. Warranted criticism can be used for improvement, Lawrence Bobo should take note. 

It has been a rough—even abysmal—year for the university. Will the leadership see the light, fix their grievous errors, and steer the institution in a better direction? One can hope. 

Until next week.

CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’ weekly newsletter, written by the NAS Staff. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Photo by Kiwihug on Unsplash

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