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Campus & Community

Faculty working groups formed on institutional voice, fostering open inquiry

Garber, Manning announce Noah Feldman, Alison Simmons, Tomiko Brown-Nagin, and Eric Beerbohm as chairs

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Interim Harvard President Alan Garber and Interim Provost John Manning announced faculty working groups to examine how and when the University should speak as an institution and another on the nature of open inquiry, challenging discourse, disagreement, and debate on campus. The Gazette sat down with Manning and group chairs Noah Feldman and Alison Simmons of the Institutional Voice Working Group, and Tomiko Brown-Nagin and Eric Beerbohm of the Open Inquiry and Constructive Dialogue Working Group, to discuss the work ahead.

Working groups have been set up to examine two related questions: fostering open inquiry on campus and defining the proper use of Harvard’s institutional voice. Why did we need two groups for this rather than one?

John Manning: These working groups will focus on how we collectively can fulfill our University’s mission of teaching, learning, and research at the highest levels. That objective requires a culture in which people feel able to express their views, disagree productively, and make mistakes as they learn.

The Open Inquiry Working Group will help us to better understand how members of our community feel about expressing their views on difficult, challenging questions and about how we can best create the conditions for constructive discourse across differences in the classroom and beyond.  

The Institutional Voice Working Group will ask: When should the institution use its voice and how does that impact the environment of free inquiry in our community? So, these working groups are related but deal with quite different aspects of the same set of goals.

The University’s handling of Oct. 7 and the war in Gaza made Harvard a lightning rod for criticism. Do concerns about the institution’s public voice begin there or do they extend further back in time?

Manning: The past several months have seen intensified discussion about institutional voice at many academic institutions. But the question of how an institution uses its official voice has a very long history.

The Kalven Report at the University of Chicago, which is often a focal point for discussion of institutional voice, was released in 1967, and President Derek Bok discussed the question thoughtfully in essays published in the Gazette during his presidency.

There have also been lots of discussions in recent years about growing expectations for leaders to speak on matters of public importance. So the question of institutional voice has been an ongoing one.

The University is a leader in higher education. If its institutional voice is muted, what does that do to that leadership role?

Noah Feldman: I think it’s a little soon to talk about “muting.” It’s always going to be important for the University to express itself on topics that are directly relevant to its operation as a university. So, if something affects higher education, the mission of higher education, it’s likely to be directly relevant to the University. And it’s hard for me to imagine a world where the University wouldn’t be prepared to speak out on things that were directly relevant to its mission.

Manning: As centers for research and learning, universities have a lot to contribute to public discourse, and the many members of our University’s broader community have long served as thought leaders helping to address some of the most urgent problems facing our society and world. The questions for the working group are: When should a university make itself heard through statements by academic leadership and when should it rely on the voices of an outstanding academic community?

The idea of institutional neutrality has been tied up in discussions of institutional voice. Is that part of this conversation?

Feldman: The Kalven Report uses the word neutrality, and it gets used a lot. One of the things that we have to explore is whether that framework is the most useful framework. I’ll note that our charge doesn’t use the word “neutrality.” The working group is called the Institutional Voice Working Group.

So, on some questions dealing with the institution, trends in higher education, or the denial of visas to graduate students, the administrative voice is important, but in other places it’s not or shouldn’t be?

Alison Simmons: If it concerns the mission of the University, then surely it ought to have a voice, and it had better have a loud voice.

Are there other important questions for your group to consider?

Simmons: As John said, we have to start with the mission of the University and whatever this committee recommends has to flow from it. Part of our job is to unsettle students when they get here so that they think about, reflect on, and test the beliefs they came here with. They may leave with the same beliefs, but if we’ve done our job right, they can justify those beliefs, having considered different and opposing views.

Feldman: Our mission does involve learning. It involves teaching; it involves pursuing the truth. It also involves creating an environment where we’re training students to be citizens. And as citizens, they’re going to have to learn to disagree while still being citizens of the same country.

In our particular historical moment — of polarization and partisanship — it’s more important than ever to enable students to learn how to disagree, to stand up for what they believe in while still being involved in the collaborative process of discussion and discourse. They have to listen to the other side. So, when we think about institutional voice, we also have to think about it against that backdrop.

Do students know that they’re coming here to be unsettled?

Simmons: I tell them that on the first day of class.

Manning: At the Law School, we emphasize from the very beginning that it is a place where you come to engage with people who will have very different views from you.

We tell our incoming students each year you can’t know your best argument unless you construct the most generous version of the argument on the other side. That ability to listen, really listen, to those who think differently from you is vital to learning and to honing the critical capacity that we want all Harvard students to develop.

One of the things that I think the output of the working group will highlight is the power and the importance of empathy — the idea that empathy, curiosity, and listening are superpowers; that you will get further, learn more, and become a more effective advocate and leader if you truly understand the positions of those with whom you disagree.

So that skill is useful regardless of what discipline a student may be pursuing?

Simmons: It’s useful to all disciplines. We’re also trying to prepare them to be citizens. If you have to vote on something, you need to be able to think through both sides of the issue to make an informed decision.

Feldman: It is relevant to the sciences and to the arts and to the social sciences and to every domain. If you go over to the physics building and walk in and see them gathered around their chalkboard, they’re not all agreeing with each other. They’re trying on alternative theories, alternative accounts. They’re disagreeing, and it’s through that disagreement that people can reach rational consensus. Every new idea in some way has to disagree with the ideas that came before it.

When we talk about educating not just students, but future citizens, are there particular qualities of mind that we should be cultivating?

Tomiko Brown-Nagin: I think it is important — for students and faculty alike — to have open minds, to be respectful of all people, to welcome different points of view, and to have the ability and the inclination to engage in debate. I feel optimistic that these habits of mind and these skills can be taught if they are not already present.

Eric Beerbohm: The excitement of being unsettled is probably the most transferable tool and skill that we offer.

I think of it as the experience of being humbled here such that students leave with the sense that when they look back at themselves four years later, they realize how much more there is to learn, even after all the work they’ve done.

The charge for our working group cites empathy and curiosity. I was reflecting that what undergirds those is the humility to be open, to have experiences that change.

Do those skills have to be taught intentionally? Is it a shift that perhaps we need to focus on teaching these skills?

Brown-Nagin: I think there is likely to be some variation across the University and across Schools in how classroom teaching occurs. But I believe that there will be a great deal of consensus around what we’re trying to accomplish. That includes encouraging critical thought, pursuing evidence-based positions — whatever position one takes — and fostering good University citizenship. I hope we all can agree that these norms are critical to the well-being of our community.

What evidence do we have that this is a problem?

Manning: It’s fair to say that we’ve been hearing for several years that many in our community find it difficult to express their views on important questions. And the first step for the Open Inquiry Working Group will be to gather data systematically to ascertain how members of our community are experiencing the classroom and beyond.

The Kennedy School’s Candid and Constructive Conversations working group started by surveying their community and asking questions about how members of the HKS community feel about expressing their views on difficult questions. The College last year surveyed their graduating seniors, asking a similar set of questions.

Brown-Nagin: It’s really important to begin figuring out what the evidence tells us. Nevertheless, I think that we want to discuss how students and faculty should show up in the classroom. We want to be sure that we cultivate an environment that encourages intellectual rigor and debate, while fostering respect for all people.

I think that a part of the working group process will be determining the extent of the problem and engaging with people across the University to gain a sense qualitatively and perhaps even quantitatively — through surveys — of what the scope of the problem is.

Beerbohm: Our students are joining our community against a backdrop of hyperpolarization, with a social media environment that I would describe as a new moral fact that did not exist when I arrived at Harvard 15 years ago.

I think the reticence that some students express often relates to the ability of what they say to travel far outside the University. Sometimes they’re worried about how it might signal or not signal virtue to other students, to faculty. These background conditions make this an urgent issue: How can open, even playful, inquiry flourish despite these forces?

How important to your work will be programs already underway in different parts of the University?

Beerbohm: We will do a University-wide assessment to see how people are experiencing dialogue across differences, and search for the many models — curricular and co-curricular in use in the Schools and parts of FAS.

We hope that this working group will spark enormous amounts of practice sharing and developing new evidence-based tools. I hope that the Edmond & Lily Safra Center for Ethics can serve as a clearinghouse, keeping a database of modules and tools that encourage civil disagreement and dialogue.

Simmons: We also need to focus concertedly on the graduate students. They’re in a particularly complicated position because they’re both students and teachers. So, this is a difficult issue for them to navigate, and I think we need to think through their challenges.

Are we engaging in a counterculture war in some ways? The culture wars have brought us lessons that extreme views get the most attention, that people who compromise are weak, and that disagreement is best handled by shaming, trolling, and canceling.

Brown-Nagin: I believe that the research shows that there is a relationship between the use of social media and echo chambers. We must appreciate as a university that we have become increasingly diverse in all sorts of ways over the decades. That’s both a beautiful thing and something that can create conditions under which problems arise.

Over the last year, we have seen more clearly the struggles of our community to understand the responsibilities of University citizenship and the idea of freedom of expression and its limits on campus. But I do not want to promote the view that this is all about something new and different in this era. Trying to engage constructively across disciplinary boundaries, and racial, ethnic, religious, social boundaries is not a new a challenge, but it is one that we all should embrace.

How do you reach the spaces where the students spend most of their time and do most of their interactions: in the Houses and in the student groups?

Beerbohm: If there’s any space where students feel comfortable enough to let their hair down, express who they are and their deepest values, it often is the Houses, extracurricular groups, and identity affinity groups. But that can sometimes cut the other way.

Harvard College is unique in that almost every student spends three years in a House. They might have this deep connection to someone, but also think, “Should I cordon off parts of who I am?”

To that end, this spring, residential tutors and proctors are putting on events that get students engaged with values where they live, where they eat, and I think it has to be a place where we develop the practice of disagreeing with warmth — and valuing that disagreement.

This ideal of intellectual vitality, custom-built for Harvard College by our students, aspires to connect open inquiry in the classroom to the openness to share who one is in the Houses and in one’s extracurricular groups.

These co-curricular spaces are incredible places to test this idea. I’m extremely optimistic about it.