On April 12, the psychologist Steven Pinker and the psychobiologist Bertha Madras announced in the Boston Globe the formation of the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard (CAFH), a faculty-led organization devoted to the principles of free inquiry, intellectual diversity, and civil discourse. This is welcome news. After all, everyone looks up to Harvard. Unfortunately, however, all is not well at America’s oldest university. Noting that Harvard ranks 170th of 203 in FIRE’s “2023 College Free Speech Rankings,” Pinker and Madras state with depressing force that “we know of cases of disinvitation, sanctioning, harassment, public shaming, and threats of firing and boycotts for the expression of disfavored opinions. More than half of our students say they are uncomfortable expressing views on controversial issues in class.”
As I write, the CAFH has 71 members, many significant presences in academia. Among them are three university professors (Harvard’s highest rank), including former president Lawrence Summers, and all but six are tenured or tenure-track; only four are retired. As Pinker and Madras put it, “We are diverse in politics, demographics, disciplines, and opinions but united in our concern that academic freedom needs a defense team.”
Consider the diversity of disciplines. Nine of the 71 are from the law school, eight from the medical school, and five each from the schools of business and government. Along with two members each from the schools of divinity, education, and public health, plus one from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, they constitute 34—almost half—who are affiliated with Harvard’s professional schools and are not members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS). One former director of admissions is also on the list. As for the remaining 36, 19 are social scientists, six are scientists, five are humanists, and another six are members of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), which is technically part of FAS, though Harvard often assesses it separately.
These figures are, at one level, not unbalanced: the total number of faculty members in the seven professional schools just mentioned (1,196) is comparable with the total in FAS plus SEAS (1,102). But at least three reasons for concern stand out.
First, it is baffling that anyone with a job at the university would choose not to join the CAFH. To put it bluntly: if you are an academic uninterested in academic freedom, you are in the wrong profession. Second, there are both developmental and cultural reasons to care especially much about undergraduates, and so it is worrisome that only around 3 percent of the professors from whom college students might take courses are members. (True, the students are at least as likely to enroll in classes taught by lecturers and graduate students, who are not counted in the faculty figures in the previous paragraph. This is a separate issue.) And third, while social scientists—especially professors of psychology (seven) and government (five; note that Harvard’s Department of Government is separate from its John F. Kennedy School of Government, which is a professional school)—may appear to be pulling some weight, the same is less obviously so of professors in the other divisions of FAS, with humanists bringing up the rear.
Now, one might imagine that the imbalance has something to do with different sizes of the divisions and of individual departments within each division. Some numbers: in the social sciences, there are almost twice as many active professors (full, associate, and assistant) in the economics department (53) as in psychology (27); to move to other divisions, there are fewer, though not dramatically fewer, professors in chemistry and chemical biology (24) and in the classics (19); but there are just three in Celtic languages and literatures. Still, raw numbers do not tell the whole story: only two economists have joined the CAFH so far—plus one classicist. There are no chemists or Celticists.
To a certain extent, this probably shows the effect of safety in numbers. If you are in psychology or the medical school, having colleagues like Pinker and Madras should give you courage to join the freedom brigade—and once two have joined, maybe a third will as well. And then a fourth and a fifth, and so on.
I should be clear that the divisions are not always what one might expect. In particular, Harvard counts among the social sciences some departments that others might think to place in the humanities. Two examples are history (indeed, I would be inclined to speak of all three CAFH members as humanists) and African and African American studies (no members). Also, it is hard to take an accurate tally when some professors have joint appointments, including one CAFH member who is in the division of science and SEAS and the medical school (and at least one other whose CAFH affiliation is given as the Kennedy School but is also in economics). But these observations do not affect my overall point.
Obviously, I encourage anthropologists (no members) and mathematicians (no members) to join the CAFH. My brief, however, is the humanities, in which interest in both courses and degrees is falling everywhere—not just at Harvard, whose English department is an unhappy character in Nathan Heller’s recent viral New Yorker essay, “The End of the English Major.”
It should be a turnoff to smart undergraduates that not a single colleague in three-quarters of the departments that make up the humanities division cares enough about academic freedom to join the CAFH: comparative literature, East Asian studies, English, history of art and architecture, linguistics, music, Slavic languages and literatures, etc. Maybe students are already so turned off that nothing will bring them back. Or—worse—maybe all too many of those who still gravitate toward courses in these departments actually like what the humanities have become.
A hallmark of the humanities used to be informed and spirited debates about artistic, textual, and philosophical issues that are difficult, perhaps impossible, to resolve. It has been decades since people in the know could say with a straight face that this was still standard practice, and the problems, which were bad a generation ago, have gotten far worse in recent years: so many college and university campuses, including all the elite ones, are now progressive echo chambers filled with so-called activist scholars and their “cynical theories.”
Theodore Kupfer has briefly but persuasively presented in these pages a “multifactor explanation” for the rise of the “nebulous, yet expansive, phenomenon” known as wokeness. We will need some years’ distance for a proper evaluation, but no one can doubt that humanities departments tend to be the worst offenders, with professors and students alike claiming that the three parts of the trio of free inquiry, intellectual diversity, and civil discourse are antithetical to the new holy trinity of diversity, equity, and inclusion. One need only look at who does and does not join which organization and who does and does not sign which letter to see what the humanities have become.
Take the Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA), a national group that I helped found when I was on the faculty at Princeton. Like the CAFH, it is politically neutral. The ever-increasing list of members shows some of the same imbalances: professors of law (112 have the word “law” somewhere in their title or affiliation, 59 of them founding members) seem to care a lot more about academic freedom than professors of English (16, with five founding members). (That said, there are almost as many economists as psychologists and chemists combined.) It is pleasing to see that roughly two-thirds of AFA members with Harvard affiliations are also members of the CAFH. The ones who are not should join—as should those who are members of the CAFH but not the AFA.
At Princeton, no member of the English department has joined the AFA. But if you are a professor of English there (and thus perhaps associated with a recent incident of anti-Semitism that has implications for the scope of academic freedom), then you are statistically likely to be among the hundreds who signed the infamous “Faculty Letter” of July 4, 2020. In addition to making demands that violate Civil Rights law, that open letter recommended the immediate creation of “a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty” (emphasis added). I publicly dissented—with, ultimately, extreme consequences.
Since Princeton does not have a law school or most other professional schools, some comparisons are off the table, but it is a matter of record that 23 of the signatories were faculty members in English. By contrast only two professors of economics and one of chemistry signed (but, for whatever reason, ten psychologists did).
Two kickers. One is that four of the five lead signatories of the Princeton letter are humanities professors: in English, the arts, classics, and African American studies (which Princeton classifies differently from Harvard), plus astrophysical sciences. The other kicker: one of the four decamped to Harvard in 2021, and another is going later this year.
Benjamin Franklin was no fan of Harvard. Using the wonderful pen name Mrs. Silence Dogood, he wrote just over 300 years ago, in 1722, that the students “were little better than Dunces and Blockheads. Alas! alas!” Still, it was a place of learning, with a distinguished faculty. And so it will remain: a university, if you can keep it.