We have been discussing the call for blacklists and the campaign of harassment against Trump supporters, lawyers, and officials after the election. Now Harvard students are asking for the university to establish a preemptive bar on former Trump officials and consultants from entering the campus until they are reviewed and vetted. Rather than see universities as an opportunity for dialogue and understanding of our deep divisions, the students seem to be following the lead of Democratic leaders like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) who are calling for lists of anyone “complicit” with the Trump Administration. The students demand that any Trump officials be barred pending a review of their record to “hold them fully accountable for that complicity.”
Harvard University students wrote a letter addressed to Harvard president Lawrence Bacow and other leadership calling for the action against Trump consultants and officials. It acknowledges the potential impact on free speech but declares:
We acknowledge this situation is nuanced as many appointees and career officials chose to join this administration to pursue the public good in spite of these norm violations. Others might claim to have upheld these norms from within. We are simply asking the school to create and share with students transparent guidelines of accountability that ensure its full commitment to the principles American democracy is built upon.
We remain fully committed to free speech and debate of difficult subjects — especially the damage being done to democratic governance around the world. We do not believe, however, that individuals who engage in this behavior should be legitimized or rewarded by the university. An institution dedicated to the fostering of good democratic government should remain apart from those who were willing to bring it down for their own benefit.
Notably, Harvard regularly hears from academics, including former foreign government officials, from some of the most repressive nations on Earth. I support such engagement because it allows for a full and robust discussion of core issues and policies. Yet, the students are demanding a special rule for Trump officials.
The controversy reminds me of the New York Times denouncing the publication of a column from Sen. Tom Cotton while publishing the views of dictators and their surrogates. The New York Times on published an opinion column by Regina Ip, the Hong Kong official widely denounced as “Beijing’s enforcer.” Ip declared “Hong Kong is part of China” and dismissed the protesters fighting for freedom in their city. I had no objection to the publishing of the column. Ip is a major figure in Hong Kong and, despite her support for authoritarian rule and crushing dissent, there is a value to having such views as part of the public debate. Rather, my concern is that the New York Times was denounced by many of us for its cringing apology after publishing a column by Sen. Cotton and promising not to publish future such columns. Ip recently mocked the protests as every pro-democracy legislator left the Hong Kong legislature.
The point is not to call for blocking a wider array of views but embracing the value of having the free exchange of all views. Trump officials were supported by roughly half of this country. The last election resulted in the Republicans picking up seats in the House and likely holding the election. Indeed, President-elect Joe Biden carried a series of states with a narrow margin. Yet, the students want any Trump consultant or official to face an immediate, preemptive hold depending review of their background.
What is most disturbing is that some faculty support this effort. The letter disregards the many fellow citizens — and presumably students — who supported the Trump Administration. While professors have systemically reduced conservatives and libertarians on top faculties to a small minority, they continue to maintain that they are not showing the same bias against conservative or libertarian students. Yet, these letters isolate not just Trump officials, but Trump supporters who are part of the Harvard community.
There is an alternative: free speech. Our universities can play a key role in healing this country rather than fostering further divisions. We can use our schools to allow for both sides to meet and ideally to better understand each other. We can continue to disagree while gathering around a common faith in free speech as a shared value. Instead of holding people “accountable for their complicity,” we can hold ourselves to a higher burden of mutual respect and civility.