Pinker’s Five-Point Plan for Harvard

Harvard Professor Steven Pinker published a five-point “plan to save Harvard from itself:”

Free speech. Universities should adopt a clear and conspicuous policy on academic freedom. It might start with the First Amendment, which binds public universities and which has been refined over the decades with carefully justified exceptions. These include crimes that by their very nature are committed with speech, like extortion, bribery, libel, and threats, together with incitement of imminent lawless action. It also permits restraints on the time, place, and manner of expression. The First Amendment does not entitle someone to blare propaganda from a sound truck in a residential neighborhood at 3 a.m. or to set up a soapbox in the middle of a busy freeway.

Since universities are institutions with a mission of research and education, they are also entitled to controls on speech that are necessary to fulfill that mission. These include standards of quality and relevance: You can’t teach anything you want at Harvard, just like you can’t publish anything you want in The Boston Globe. And it includes an environment conducive to learning. Though a university should not punish a student for holding up a placard, it has a legitimate interest in preventing a group from permanently repurposing its walls as political billboards or from forcing students to walk through a gauntlet of intimidating slogan-chanters on their way to class every day.

Institutional neutrality. A university does not need a foreign policy, and it does not need to issue pronouncements on the controversies and events of the day. It is a forum for debate, not a protagonist in debates. When a university takes a public stand, it either puts words in the mouths of faculty and students who can speak for themselves or unfairly pits them against their own employer. It’s even worse when individual departments take positions, because it sets up a conflict of interest with any dissenting students and faculty whose fates they control.

The events of this autumn also show that university pronouncements are an invitation to rancor and distraction. Inevitably there will be constituencies who feel a statement is too strong, too weak, too late, or wrongheaded. The resulting apologies and backtracking compromise the reputation of the university and interfere with the task of administering it. For this reason a stated policy of institutional neutrality would be a godsend to university administrators. Such a policy would still allow them to comment on issues that directly affect university business, just like any institution.

Nonviolence. Some students think it is a legitimate form of political expression to drown out a speaker, block the audience’s view with a screen, obstruct public passageways, invade a lecture hall chanting slogans over bullhorns, force administrators out of their offices and occupy the building, or get in the faces of other students.

Universities should not indulge acts of vandalism, trespassing, and extortion. Free speech does not include a heckler’s veto, which blocks the speech of others. These goon tactics also violate the deepest value of a university, which is that opinions are advanced by reason and persuasion, not by force. And they bring further discredit to the institution: Parents and taxpayers wonder why they should support, at fantastic expense, students being forced to listen to political propaganda from other students when they should be learning math and history from their professors.

Viewpoint diversity. Universities have become intellectual and political monocultures. Seventy-seven percent of the professors in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences describe themselves as liberal, and fewer than 3 percent as conservative. Many university programs have been monopolized by extreme ideologies, such as the conspiracy theory that the world’s problems are the deliberate designs of a white heterosexual male colonialist oppressor class. (The appalling antisemitism infesting college campuses grew out of the corollary that Israelis, and by extension Jews who support them, are a party to this conspiracy.) Vast regions in the landscape of ideas are no-go zones, and dissenting ideas are greeted with incomprehension, outrage, and censorship.

The entrenchment of dogma is a hazard of policies that hire and promote on the say-so of faculty backed by peer evaluations. Though intended to protect departments from outside interference, the policies can devolve into a network of like-minded cronies conferring prestige on each other. Universities should incentivize departments to diversify their ideologies, and they should find ways of opening up their programs to sanity checks from the world outside.

Disempowering DEI. Many of the assaults on academic freedom (not to mention common sense) come from a burgeoning bureaucracy that calls itself diversity, equity, and inclusion while enforcing a uniformity of opinion, a hierarchy of victim groups, and the exclusion of freethinkers. Often hastily appointed by deans as expiation for some gaffe or outrage, these officers stealthily implement policies that were never approved in faculty deliberations or by university leaders willing to take responsibility for them.

An infamous example is the freshman training sessions that terrify students with warnings of all the ways they can be racist (such as asking, “Where are you from?”). Another is the mandatory diversity statements for job applicants, which purge the next generation of scholars of anyone who isn’t a woke ideologue or a skilled liar. And since overt bigotry is in fact rare in elite universities, bureaucrats whose job depends on rooting out instances of it are incentivized to hone their Rorschach skills to discern ever-more-subtle forms of “systemic” or “implicit” bias.

Universities should stanch the flood of DEI officials, expose their policies to the light of day, and repeal the ones that cannot be publicly justified.