20 Mar 2024

Free Speech and Community Values Working Group Q+A


by Shona Simkin

In the fall of 2023, Dean Srikant Datar announced the formation of four working groups to address current issues on campus: Antisemitism, Islamophobia and Anti-Arabism, Classroom Culture and Norms, and Free Expression and Community Values. Below is our conversation with the co-chairs of the Free Expression and Community Values Working Group, Debora Spar and Clayton Rose, about the goals, challenges, and progress towards clarifying the relationship between free speech, academic freedom, and community values.

What are the issues your group is aiming to address?
Debora Spar: We’re tackling the complicated, overlapping issue of free speech and the campus’s community values. Our starting point is the University’s statement on rights and responsibilities, which lays out the University’s approach to free speech and academic freedom. With that as backdrop, our working group is looking specifically at the HBS community values and the extent to which they reflect and amplify the University’s overarching policy.

Clayton Rose: We’re anchored in the University’s statement with respect to speech and academic freedom—the challenge is how we think about the tension that does exist, and will likely continue to exist, between these commitments and our community values, and the imperative from a learning perspective and the desire from the human perspective to be a robust community. How do we shine a light on those tensions and issues and build the skills, disposition and desire to address and manage them? We see this work as aspirational, rather than disciplinary: How do we build a better community?

How will you go about this work?
DS: We’ve tackled a small portion already, drafting an updated campus demonstration policy that is currently under broader review. We currently have a wonderful working group with students, faculty, and staff that meets regularly and is now in the process of examining our existing community values to see if we want to modify them and how to make our community comfortable and familiar with them if we do so. We’re also seeing if there are ways we can and should clarify any specific elements of what will always be a complex set of issues and tensions. We’re hoping to finish this work by the end of the semester so that the education and dissemination piece can be part of the orientation and onboarding of students in September.

What are some of the challenges and advantages specific to HBS?
DS: We have a great advantage in our community values. They’re not something that’s hidden away on a shelf. I’ve had a copy of them in my office for 30 years and they’re posted in every classroom. They’re alive and have been revisited frequently. What makes them particularly important is that HBS has a very specific environment. In most other campus settings, students and faculty have opportunities to opt out—you avoid certain courses or people on campus. At HBS, we tell our first-year students what room to sit in, which faculty will teach them, and who will sit next to them in that classroom for nine months. Their grade depends 50 percent on participation. We have to have a community that works. No one on this campus can opt out of conversation; it’s what drives our model. We have to have an environment in which people can speak freely and comfortably. If we don't, the entire learning model goes away.

Accordingly, our community values are not just a reiteration of free speech—they’re about the values it will take to sustain a distinct community in a very distinct environment.

CR: This isn’t a new issue. You can go back at least a decade and see the substantial increase in polarization and political divisiveness in our society and across the world—it’s a real problem. Whether it’s those from marginalized identities who feel like they don’t have a voice or those from marginalized political backgrounds who feel like they’re not able to voice their views. In the aftermath of October 7, and what has happened at Harvard, the country, and around the world, we’re trying to address and confront specific and greatly heightened tensions that we’ve previously been trying to work our way through.

The other challenge is that the criticism leveled at the University and HBS has caused everyone to pause. We’re in a moment where people are in a defensive crouch trying to figure out how to move forward, and that makes the work really important but more challenging. This work involves faculty, staff, students, and alumni—all play an essential role in the success of the institution. We’re not going to solve everything right away. There are a lot of very challenging crosscurrents to navigate.

What are your next steps?
DS: There are exciting opportunities over the next year or so to think about how we might build new structures—we’re talking about possibly a debate series—that engage our students and community in intellectually exciting ways. What does it mean to engage in difficult conversations? Not just when something bad happens, but how do we build the muscle of debate, of engagement with tough issues, of changing your mind and compromising? The skill of rhetoric used to be taught in higher education, but more recently I suspect society has lost this muscle, to its great detriment. What better place than HBS to think about how this becomes part of the toolbox with which we equip our students? That’s the exciting part of these conversations, thinking about how we take this moment of stress and despair and aim to turn it into something more productive.

What outcomes are you hoping to achieve?
CR: Our charge is to make a set of recommendations to the Dean that will allow him and the administration to address these issues for current and incoming students. Then we need to recommend how to involve faculty and staff. We want to land somewhere between being hyper specific and aspirational.

DS: In the hyper practical and specific category, we would like to have a set of recommendations by the end of this academic year. It’s been a long year and it’s important to have words on paper that are carefully thought through and shared by as many relevant members of the community as possible. The word that I keep coming back to in this context is clarity. This is never an area that is black and white. The law itself is fraught, the context is constantly evolving, our campus is different from the University campus, the University campus is different from other university campuses. We’re never going to have anything in a nice, neat box with a bow. But I do think we can have more clarity.

What might be some initial signs of success?
DS: It would be nice to have a single document that describes our work and recommendations. I would also eventually like to see a system for reporting on incidents of alleged bias, similar to the systems that universities already have in place for other forms of misconduct on campus. It took a while to get this system in place, and it felt very complicated in the early days of its inception, but it has now been normalized and it works. Over time I’d like to see the School and the University—and all universities—have systems in place for reporting incidents of alleged bias as well, along with their resolution.

CR: This is hard work. We’re at the center of real conflict regarding essential senses of identity and what is expected of a great business school (and university), and we will want to be careful about expecting too many early “wins.” We should be very tempered in our expectation of making real progress in solving these fundamental problems anytime soon. This should not deter us from doing this work to build community on a sustained basis over time, far from it—it’s hard because it’s so important. But if we set ourselves up with the expectation that we’re going to succeed quickly in something so challenging it sets us up for disappointment and appropriate criticism.

It’s hard to get folks to show up and when they do, to engage in a positive way, here and at institutions and organizations everywhere. It’s so much easier to just stay home. One of our early markers will be getting more people involved who are open minded, willing to listen and learn, and who buy into the idea that this is work that needs to be done.

You’ve both been college presidents—does that affect your approach to this work?
DS: I think that having served in that role gives me a clearer sense of how critical these issues are, and how difficult they can be to address. Free speech and academic freedom are absolutely integral to all that is great about American higher education, and yet it’s way too easy to take these aims as given, without realizing how hard it can be to put them in practice and make them work.

CR: From the beginning to the very end of my time as a college president, one of my central projects was how to build the ability to engage with issues and ideas with which we disagree, that make us uncomfortable and can even be offensive. How do we build those intellectual and emotional skills and the disposition with the goal of making change in the world? This work is familiar to me in its frustrations and potential. One can’t be a college or university president or dean and not recognize that there’s no way to avoid having a significant number of people unhappy with what you do. You need to own it and be comfortable with it and make the best decisions that you can. That informs how I think about this too.

DS: It’s important to realize that no one can do work in this area that will make everybody happy. We need to make that front and center—it’s the practical reality. Part of life and leadership is making careful decisions with as much information as possible, and sharing and exchanging them with as much empathy as possible. But you can’t make everybody happy. And that’s ok. We live, and are raising the next generation, in a world in which people are making binary choices and opting into things that are comfortable and out of things that are not. And it’s not good. It’s not good for our campus and it’s certainly not good for our country. We don’t have the ability to change that, but we can at least try to model some elements of it.

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