• Washington Post

After Turmoil, Harvard Students Return to A Changed Campus

Josh Reynolds for The Washington Post
Harvard professor Michael Sandel leads a dialogue on the ethics of artificial intelligence on campus.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – Under the arched ceiling of a historical theater, a wood-paneled space both lofty and intimate, Harvard University students gathered on a recent evening to debate the ethics of artificial intelligence. Michael Sandel, a well-known professor of political philosophy, stepped lightly across the stage and encouraged students to disagree.

Hands shot up. The goal is not consensus, Sandel said later – and the lessons are particularly important now. “We’re steeped in toxic public discourse. So it’s especially important for colleges and universities to provide a civic education in listening, reasoning and arguing about big questions that matter.”

Students returned to Harvard’s campus last month after a turbulent and polarized start to the academic year, one punctuated by protests, a disastrous congressional hearing and the resignation of the university’s first Black president. The school has been sharply divided over the Israel-Gaza war; diversity, equity and inclusion efforts; and the limits of free expression. It has been attacked by politicians, wealthy alumni and its own students, a rare sign of vulnerability for one of the country’s most powerful and influential academic institutions.

This year, Harvard must navigate political animosity that has made higher education an attractive target, an investigation by Congress, pointed criticism of its leadership and a lawsuit by students accusing the school of rampant antisemitism.

Last week, more than a dozen students, represented by the Muslim Legal Fund of America, asked the Education Department to investigate what they said was the school’s failure to protect Muslim, Arab and Palestinian students from harassment, intimidation and assault.

And one of Harvard’s most generous donors, billionaire alumnus Ken Griffin, announced during an interview at a conference with CNBC’s Leslie Picker a pause in donations “until Harvard makes it very clear that they’re going to resume their role as educating young American men and women to be leaders, to be problem solvers, to take on difficult issues.”

As the year begins, a question that looms is whether the school can draw on its own ideals and the collective wisdom of its people to emerge from this test stronger, or whether it – and the country – is too divided.

Students crisscrossed Harvard Yard last month, hoods up as a cold rain fell on a campus that was outwardly calm and quiet. For some, the tensions of recent weeks and months are very raw: Some students lost family members in the war, saw friends go to fight, watched death tolls rise. Some were frightened by what they viewed as outright hostility on campus. Some risked sanctions to speak out about their convictions.

But many, less directly connected to the conflict, are focused on classes and labs and college life, eager for the controversies to end. Some were troubled by the resignation of Claudine Gay as president amid criticism of her responses to questions about antisemitism on campus and plagiarism allegations. Some have seen their own thinking about the issues evolve over time, and described reactions on campus as far more complex, and nuanced, than they may seem from the outside. And many students expressed hope for the semester ahead.

Some changes are evident: University officials made clear that disruptions to classrooms, libraries and other learning spaces will not be tolerated. Restrictions were placed on who could join a social media group that had alarmed some students with slurs posted anonymously. Alan M. Garber, Harvard’s interim president, recently announced task forces to combat antisemitism, as well as Islamophobia and anti-Arab bias. And the school held events aimed at fostering dialogue, including a panel with chaplains from multiple faiths, a student summit on free expression led by PEN America, and a discussion for faculty about engaging with difficult topics in the classroom.

The dean of Harvard College, Rakesh Khurana, told students in an email as the semester began that a commitment to freedom of expression is a hallmark of higher education.

Yet students have said they don’t feel as though they can speak freely. In a survey of seniors last year, just over a third said they felt comfortable expressing opposing views about controversial topics in their classes. Only 44 percent said they had done that, “even when they thought it was essential to do so,” Khurana wrote. And in conversations with students, faculty and staff, he said many had told him they feared getting “canceled.”

“The purpose of a Harvard education is not to shield you from ideas you dislike or to silence people you disagree with,” Khurana said. “It is to enable you to confront challenging ideas, interrogate your own beliefs, make up your mind, and learn to think for yourself.”

It’s a national issue. In 2021, the Knight Foundation found that almost two-thirds of college students surveyed agreed that the climate at their school prevented some people from saying things they believe because others might find it offensive.

At Harvard this winter, it has urgency.

“We are at a critical moment in our University’s history,” Khurana wrote to students. “We must show in word and deed that our university is committed to strengthening our democracy through our embrace of pluralism and tolerance.”

On the first day of classes this semester, students found that posters on campus urging the return of Israeli hostages had been defaced.

On a photo of a baby holding a toy, someone had drawn an arrow toward the child’s face and written, “HEAD STILL ON.”

Shabbos Kestenbaum, a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School, had been hoping things would get better this semester. “I just want to go to class,” he said. “I want to study. … But it’s just been a constant battle of facing antisemitism almost on a daily basis. … It’s just so defeating and isolating.”

Kestenbaum is one of six student plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed against Harvard in January charging that the school has become a “bastion of rampant anti-Jewish hatred and harassment.”

Marc Kasowitz, an attorney for the Jewish students, has filed similar cases against the University of Pennsylvania and New York University. He said the problem at Harvard is rooted “in thinking that the world is divided into oppressed and oppressors.” In that view, Jews are viewed as the oppressors and the Palestinians are seen as oppressed, with resulting antisemitism – and lack of protection from the school – that is frightening many students.

A spokesman for Harvard declined to comment on the pending litigation or the Office of Civil Rights complaint filed on behalf of Muslim and pro-Palestinian students. The university announced numerous efforts this fall and winter to combat antisemitism, including increasing security on campus and forming an inclusion and belonging student leadership council that includes Jewish members. The university also has taken steps to support pro-Palestinian students who were doxed, and Khurana condemned Islamophobia along with other forms of bigotry in a social media post days after Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7.

“We don’t feel safe,” Kestenbaum said. “We don’t feel welcome. And we don’t think Harvard is serious about combating antisemitism.”

A few dozen students wearing kaffiyeh scarves gathered near the steps of Harvard’s Widener Library one day recently and pulled on white surgical gloves. One of the protesters squirted red paint out of a bottle onto their outstretched hands, which they smeared into their palms. They climbed the steps, bearing a canvas banner that read, “STOP THE GENOCIDE IN GAZA,” held their red hands up and cried, “Free Palestine!”

Then some of the students hurried along wet pathways through campus to the law school. There, John Fossum, a second-year law student from Houston, began clicking tent poles together and poking the ends into the muddy grass.

Some pro-Palestinian student groups had announced on social media a “return to campus, not normalcy,” using tents to symbolize the conditions of people who have been displaced in Gaza. A dozen students stood by an orange and gray tent, handing out fliers.

Within minutes, two men approached: The students hadn’t registered an event in advance. The protesters, including members of Law Students for a Free Palestine, politely tried to convince the staff members that it wasn’t an event but, after a few minutes, dismantled the tent as directed. They headed for the plaza in front of the Science Center, where they had gotten permission to gather, put their banners back up and continued to hand out fliers.

Israa Alzamli, who is in her third year at Harvard Law, said there are power dynamics at play regarding who has access to influential voices such as donors and politicians. Some pro-Palestinian students have been doxed, had their faces displayed on a truck labeled as antisemites and had their names shared on do-not-hire lists.

Alzamli has shared photos of body bags with her family name on them, she said. “And then I come to campus, and I have to deal with being called antisemitic, with being told that I am making calls for genocide, when I am just advocating for violence to stop.”

She said she has been trying, with teach-ins, to get people to talk about the issues despite hostile questions. But she asked, “What does it mean to disagree about the complete ethnic cleansing of a group of people?

“What does it mean to engage with somebody who denies your humanity?”

And she said: “Why should you have to?”

Daylyn Gilbert, a senior from Texas studying economics and computer science, said she thinks most people at Harvard are more centrist and open-minded than it may seem: “I think there’s a lot of diversity of thought on campus. It’s just not obvious because there are some voices that are so loud and some that are so quiet.”

She has avoided talking about the war and tensions on campus, unless she knows the person feels the same way she does. She took a walk with one friend she knew had a completely contrary view and they talked about how they didn’t want anything to come between their friendship, Gilbert said. “We didn’t actually talk about the war itself.”

Shira Hoffer, a junior from New Hampshire, had been part of the school’s Intellectual Vitality Committee, which looks at ways to promote curious, respectful dialogue on campus.

As a postscript to an email she sent to her dorm in early October, she said she had worked as a mediator and on dialogue issues, and would be happy to have a nonjudgmental conversation if anyone had questions. Within five minutes, she received a text asking her what she thought was the best solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Hoffer responded that she had no idea and shared four very different ideas from other people.

She quickly realized there was much more demand than one person with a cellphone could handle. She assembled a team of volunteers for a fledgling nonprofit group, the Hotline for Israel/Palestine, which hundreds of people have now texted. Instead of offering opinions, volunteers provide white papers and other resources from organizations with different views.

Hoffer is happy that people are asking. Too often, she said, there’s a fundamental lack of curiosity about opposing views – understandable for people who feel they have moral certainty on a given issue. She doesn’t expect that will change immediately. “But it’s certainly something to strive for.”

At Michael Sandel’s “Hard Questions” event, people laughed as they watched video clips of the professor in conversation with director Michael B. Jordan and comedian Conan O’Brien, who is an alumnus, about the ethics of technology, and they volunteered answers to questions he posed to the audience, such as whether technology would change what it means to be human.

As Sandel and the students asked follow-up questions, people often paused in thought, formulating their responses and sometimes changing their views as they considered others’ points.

As the event ended, students walked out, still debating the issues as they headed to dinner in the rain. Those kinds of conversations are foundational to a liberal arts education, Sandel said, part of the important process of figuring out what they believe and why.

Jason Hsu, a student at Harvard Kennedy School who is from Taiwan, said afterward that he enjoyed the event. He only wished that it touched more on the core issues the school is struggling with.

When Hsu was walking across Harvard Yard the day before, it hit him: “‘Wow, we just lost a president.’ That kind of eerie feeling – it sank heavily in my stomach,” he said. But he had found people reluctant to talk about what had happened.

A number of things led to the president’s resignation, he said, including the Oct. 7 attack, antisemitism and the congressional testimony – events that almost like algorithms are interpretable. “I think we owe an explanation to ourselves, a conversation as to what exactly happened, and how do we think about these issues?”

Hsu added: “That’s the core of Harvard – ‘Veritas’ – truth. But I think most people are left with question marks in their mind. How did this happen? What happened to Harvard?”