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Columns

Don’t Eliminate. Improve.

Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard

By Emily N. Dial
By Edward J. Hall, Contributing Opinion Writer
Edward J. Hall is the Norman E. Vuilleumier Professor of Philosophy and a co-president of the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard.

Let me tell you a story. Parts of it are true.

Once upon a time, there was a university named “Harvard,” located just outside of Boston. Harvard was an old university – at least, as Americans measure such things. Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, it maintained a well-earned reputation as one of the world’s premier research institutions.

Partly for that reason, and partly because of the rather less admirable ways in which it had entrenched itself in powerful political and economic institutions, it attracted a remarkably talented group of students to its undergraduate program and the programs run by its various professional schools.

Harvard maintained its reputation in part by following very rigorous practices when it came to hiring new faculty and promoting existing faculty to tenure. As part of these practices, candidates were required to submit many items including a document describing their approach to teaching.

So far, the story is true. Now let’s continue with our story of Other Harvard.

Recently, Other Harvard found itself embroiled in controversy, centered on those very hiring and promotion practices. Angry voices, both inside and outside its walls, denounced specific aspects of Harvard’s practices as betrayals of the core values of academic freedom and open, unfettered inquiry.

What was the focus of this outrage? Just this: the requirement that candidates for hiring or promotion include, as part of their dossier, a statement describing their approach to teaching.

Huh? Has Other Harvard gone mad? After all, maintaining excellence in teaching is – surely – central to its mission. What could be wrong about asking candidates to describe their approach to education?

The trouble started about 10 years earlier, when a set of ideas about teaching that had, until that point, been safely confined to remote, post-modernism-infested corners of academia, began to break out into the mainstream. One began to hear pronouncements like: “The teacher who refuses to interrogate the structures of oppression within which they operate will merely reproduce those structures in their classroom”; “the best teachers enable students to find their own truths”; “the very distinction between ‘teacher’ and ‘student’ enacts systemic violence.” Worse, the radical theories lurking behind such pronouncements began to affect college and university governance.

More and more institutions of higher education created equity-based teaching offices, with the power to force faculty to undergo mandatory training and even to change their teaching in concrete ways. Some instructors have even gone so far as to grant students a formalized role in selecting syllabus material, narrowly limit the use of exams, and avoid entirely certain kinds of grading practices.

The notorious “Berkeley rubric” for evaluating teaching statements contained the startling advice that candidates should receive a low score for saying anodyne things like it’s important to them to treat their students equally.

No wonder people were getting mad. A backlash was brewing across the country, and while Harvard had been spared the worst of the equity-based teaching excesses (thanks to a hardy strain of crusty traditionalism), one focus of the local backlash was those damn teaching statements. They had to go!

Backlash does not, alas, lend itself to clear and nuanced thinking. If we could transport ourselves to Other Harvard, we might counsel our colleagues to calm down, and direct their anger at its proper target: not those damn teaching statements, but rather the horribly distorted view about what they should contain.

“After all,” we might say to those colleagues, “surely you agree that high-quality teaching is an incredibly important part of your mission? Isn’t the issue really that you all need to reaffirm a healthy understanding of what it is?”

Maybe we could convince them to agree. However, backlash-induced outrage can be an intoxicating drug, and some of our Other Colleagues might not want to kick the habit. To be fair, they might offer up thoughtful reasons for thinking that it ain’t really that easy. Maybe the best course was to get rid of teaching statements entirely until a proper “reset” could occur.

Now let’s return home. All of us at Real Harvard, ought to recognize a certain vision of our teaching mission as one to live up to. I’m partial to the vision of the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard, of which I am a member: “A university must train students and teachers to engage across disagreement, learning to treat with intellectual seriousness and honesty the wide range of ideas and perspectives that live within our diverse community.”

Suppose you agree. Then you should also agree on the value of diversity: After all, training students and teachers to engage across disagreement requires, well, disagreement.

But building a diverse community isn’t enough. The members of that community need to experience it as one to which they genuinely belong, as a single community in which all are included equally, with – crucially – equal standing to have their voices taken up, responded to, and engaged with.

None of this should be news; indeed, just six years ago a Harvard task force produced a brilliant document – “Pursuing Excellence on a Foundation of Inclusion” – articulating and defending such values as diversity and inclusion as inextricably linked to our core educational mission.

So why wouldn’t we ask candidates for hiring and promotion for their thoughts about how they try to realize and live up to these values? Remember the counsel we gave our Other Colleagues: Isn’t the issue really that we all need to reaffirm a healthy understanding of these values?

Yes. Of course that is the issue. Furor over diversity statements in hiring is a red herring. I share my colleague professor Randall L.Kennedy’s anger. But I think we should direct that anger at its proper target: not diversity statements themselves, but rather the horribly distorted view that has taken hold about what they should contain.

Edward J. Hall is the Norman E. Vuilleumier Professor of Philosophy and a co-president of the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard.

His piece is part of the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard’s column, which runs bi-weekly on Mondays and pairs faculty members to write contrasting perspectives on a single theme. Read the companion to Hall’s piece here.

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