We talked about the blacklisting demand and the campaign to harass Trump supporters, lawyers and officials after the elections. Now Harvard students are urging the university to set up a preventive bar for former Trump officials and advisers who are not allowed to enter campus until they are checked and screened. Rather than viewing universities as an opportunity for dialogue and understanding of our deep divisions, the students seem to be following the example of democratic leaders like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (DN.Y.) who demand lists of people who are “complicit” . with the Trump administration. The students are demanding that Trump officials be expelled pending review of their records in order to “hold them fully accountable for this complicity.”
Harvard University students wrote a letter to Harvard President Lawrence Bacow and other leaders calling for action against Trump advisors and officials. It recognizes the potential impact on freedom of expression, but states:
We recognize that this situation is nuanced as many appointed individuals and career officials have chosen to join this government in order to pursue the common good despite these norms violations. Others might claim to have adhered to these norms from within. We are merely asking the school to create and share transparent accountability guidelines with students that will ensure they are fully committed to the principles of American democracy.
We remain fully committed to freedom of expression and the debate on difficult issues – especially the damage being done to democratic governance around the world. However, we do not believe that individuals who engage in this behavior should be legitimized or rewarded by the university. An institution dedicated to promoting good democratic government should remain separate from those who were willing to overthrow it for their own benefit.
In particular, Harvard hears regularly from scholars, including former foreign government officials, from some of the most repressive nations on earth. I support such engagement because it enables a full and solid discussion of the core issues and guidelines. However, the students are calling for a special rule for Trump officials.
The controversy reminds me of the New York Times denouncing the publication of a column by Senator Tom Cotton while it publishes the views of dictators and their deputies. The New York Times published an opinion column by Regina Ip, The Hong Kong official was widely denounced as “Beijing’s enforcer”. Ip declared “Hong Kong is part of China” and sacked the protesters who were fighting for freedom in their city. I had no objection to the publication of the column. Ip is a major figure in Hong Kong, and despite her support for authoritarian rule and the suppression of disagreements, it is worth having such views as part of the public debate. What I’m concerned with is that the New York Times has been denounced by many of us for its apology after publishing a column by Sen. Cotton and promising not to publish any future columns. Ip recently mocked the protests when every pro-democracy legislature left the Hong Kong legislature.
The point is not to block a wider range of views, but to consider the value of freely sharing all views. Trump officials were supported by roughly half of that country. The last election resulted in Republicans taking seats in the House of Representatives and likely holding the election. Indeed, President-elect Joe Biden sustained a number of states with a narrow margin. However, students want any Trump adviser or official to be exposed to immediate, preventative hiatus based on their background review.
Most worryingly, some faculties support this effort. The letter ignores the many fellow citizens – and presumably students – who supported the Trump administration. While professors have systematically reduced conservatives and libertarians in top faculties to a small minority, they continue to claim that they do not show the same tendency toward conservative or libertarian students. However, these letters not only isolate Trump officials, but also Trump supporters who are part of the Harvard community.
There is an alternative: freedom of speech. Our universities can play a key role in healing this land rather than promoting further divisions. We can use our schools to enable both sides to meet and, ideally, to understand each other better. We can continue to disagree as we seek a shared belief in freedom of speech as a shared value. Instead of holding people “accountable for their complicity,” we can face a greater burden of mutual respect and courtesy.