Harvard vs. open discussion

Harvard has a reputation for discouraging the open expression of opinion, and I can confirm that from eight years of working there. The reasons I left were mostly professional, but I’d like to mention an incident during my last two months that illustrates the Harvard culture.

Employees get an assortment of newsletters in their email, mostly related to their work or inconsequential. One of these had a piece clearly celebrating the Supreme Court’s Obamacare decision. I sent a reply saying that taking a political advocacy position in a general employee news mailing wasn’t appropriate.

A week or two later, the head of my department called me into her office. She told me that the person who sent out the newsletter had written to her about my complaint. This person wanted to know who I was. My email had my standard signature, giving my name and work website. It wasn’t anonymous and I’d provided information for anyone who wanted to know about me.

She told me the person who sent out the email wasn’t the one actually responsible for its content and shouldn’t be blamed for it. The sender of the mail knew perfectly well who I was, but I never found out who was responsible for its content.

She went on about “civility.” There was nothing uncivil about my response to the mail. I’ve heard that the term “civility” is widely used in academic circles to mean “don’t criticize the dominant view,” but this was the first time I’d been targeted with that use.

I conceded nothing except that perhaps I wasn’t complaining to the right person. That was the end of the matter, though probably it would have turned up as a negative point in my next review. A financially secure employee isn’t a good target; students fare worse.

By then I’d already decided to resign, but the discussion confirmed my impression that there was no point in continuing my search for another position at Harvard. I was still holding out on accepting Harvard’s so-called “confidentiality policy,” which prohibits the disclosing of pretty much any negative information without regard to confidentiality in the normal sense. (For example, reporting illegal activity violates the policy.) The culture is antithetical to my worldview. More importantly, it’s not conducive to open examination and discussion of important issues.


5 Responses to “Harvard vs. open discussion”

  1. Chris Vicary Says:

    Hi Gary,

    Nice blog you have here. It’s insightful, well-written, and covers a variety of subjects. I agree completely that political positions should not be espoused by employers. I’m interested in reading the original email you mentioned. The only thing I could find that matches the subject and time frame is the daily Harvard Gazette email from 6/28 that highlights a special report with the caption “Assessing the health care ruling,” which links to an article entitled, “Win for Obama, but no let-up in debate.” This is unlikely to be the email in question, however, since the email and corresponding article do not seem to be celebrating the decision, nor advocating a political position. Can you give me any hints on how to locate the original email?



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