Shortly after Hamas launched its attack on Israel, a coalition of more than 30 student groups at Harvard released a now-infamous statement blaming Israel for Hamas’s brutality. “We, the undersigned student organizations,” the statement read, “hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.”
Harvard president Claudine Gay eventually acknowledged Hamas’s savagery, first in a 119-word statement released three days after the attacks (her statement on George Floyd’s death was nearly 500 words) and again in a two-minute video message sent to members of the Harvard community on October 12. While Gay began the video by noting “Our university rejects terrorism. That includes the barbaric atrocities perpetrated by Hamas,” she focused the better part of her message on the importance of free speech, suggesting that the student groups behind the statement at issue should be excused. “Our university embraces a commitment to free expression,” Gay explained. “That commitment extends even to views that many of us find objectionable, even outrageous. We do not sanction or punish people for expressing such views.”
Of course, Harvard does sanction and punish people for expressing views that people like Gay find objectionable. In fact, as has been widely reported, in the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression’s most recent college free speech rankings, Harvard received the lowest score possible—a 0.00—and was the only school out of the 254 surveyed with an “Abysmal” speech climate rating.
The college environment that Gay described in her October 12 video message—one in which mutual respect and the free exchange of ideas are held in high regard—does not exist at Harvard. And it is largely because of Harvard’s illiberal campus culture that more than 30 of its student organizations believe Israel is to blame for an Islamic terror group’s brutality.
Consider first the lack of ideological diversity within Harvard’s student body. From 2013 to 2021, the school’s student newspaper, the Harvard Crimson, conducted an email survey of incoming freshmen every August. As part of this annual survey, students were asked whether they identified politically as very liberal, somewhat liberal, moderate, somewhat conservative, or very conservative. The results are summarized in the chart below.
For the classes of 2017 to 2025, the share of students who identified as liberal ranged from 60 percent (Class of 2017) to 72.4 percent (Classes of 2024 and 2025); the share identifying as moderate ranged from 18.6 percent (Class of 2025) to 25 percent (Class of 2017); and the share calling themselves conservative ranged from 7.4 percent (Class of 2024) to 15.7 percent (Class of 2018). For the Class of 2017, the first class for which these data are available, 60 percent of students identified as liberal; 25 percent identified as moderate; and 15 percent identified as conservative. By contrast, for the Class of 2025, the last class for which these data are available, 72.4 percent of students identified as liberal; 18.6 percent identified as moderate; and only 9 percent identified as conservative. In other words, while Harvard freshmen have for years been predominantly liberal, it appears that they are becoming even more so.
This lack of viewpoint diversity is even more pronounced among Harvard faculty. The Crimson’s most recent survey of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) found that 77.1 percent of those faculty members identify as liberal, compared with 20 percent who identify as moderate and 2.9 percent who identify as conservative; previous surveys of Harvard’s FAS tell a similar story. When the Crimson asked on its 2021 FAS survey whether faculty members supported increasing political diversity at Harvard by hiring more conservative-leaning professors, only 23.1 percent said yes.
The leftward bent of students and faculty at Harvard and other institutions of higher education might be one reason that moderates and conservatives hesitate to engage in discussion and debate on campus. According to an October University of Chicago and Associated Press poll, only 20 percent of U.S. adults believe that conservatives can freely speak their minds on college and university campuses “a lot.” Similarly, while 47 percent of adults said that college campuses are doing “a good job” providing an inclusive environment for liberals, only 27 percent of adults said schools did the same for conservatives.
The ideological monoculture on college campuses has consequences. In “Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion,” political theorist John Stuart Mill argued that where the free exchange of ideas cannot occur, out of a fear of physical persecution or social ostracization, moral degeneracy will prevail. He reasoned:
Were an opinion a personal possession of no value except to the owner; if to be obstructed in the enjoyment of it were simply a private injury, it would make some difference whether the injury was inflicted only on a few persons or on many. But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error. (Emphasis added.)
The “right” opinion about Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel is unequivocal condemnation of the terror group and its actions. Yet, because this opinion and the individuals who hold it are (and have long been) suppressed in higher education, left-wing students and faculty alike are “deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth.”