Harvard announced Tuesday that it will no longer take official stances on controversial domestic and international issues, aligning itself with a growing number of colleges and universities that have adopted policies of institutional neutrality.

The change follows months of turmoil on Harvard’s campus, including student protests over the war in Gaza, and the resignation of president Claudine Gay, who left the role amid criticism that her response to a Congressional inquiry about whether calls for the genocide of Jews would violate Harvard’s rules was vague and legalistic.

Harvard Law School professor Noah Feldman, who co-chaired a faculty working group recommending the change, emphasized that university leaders are not elected officials and should refrain from taking official positions on contentious issues, such as the war in Gaza.

“[The old approach] was not well-suited to an era of social media and political polarization, in which essentially every important issue that arises could be the subject of commentary,” he said, “and in which university administrators were increasingly expected to wake up every morning, look at the news and figure out what their positions should be on every global issue.”

Feldman emphasized that university leaders are not elected officials and should not act like politicians with foreign policies. He said the old approach, which consumed Gay’s final days in office, left very little time for doing work related to academics.

Not everyone agrees with the change.

“I worry about it, personally,” said history professor Alison Frank Johnson, a Gay supporter who had warned of ‘creeping authoritarianism’ in academia after Gay’s resignation. “It’s vague and it’s not clear who has the authority to decide what counts as mission critical or who is allowed to speak.”

Nico Perrino, executive vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), a group that advocates for free speech, welcomed the announcement.

“Universities dedicated to the pursuit of truth should refrain from issuing statements on social and political issues,” Perrino wrote in a statement. “Doing so chills debate and discussion, which are for students and faculty to have, not for institutions to decide.”

According to FIRE, eight colleges and universities, including Vanderbilt and Columbia universities and the College of the Holy Cross, have adopted similar policies. Those were set out in the University of Chicago’s 1967 Kalven Report, released during the Vietnam War era.

Lynn Pasquerella, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, opposes the idea of institutional neutrality, because it can be difficult to enact.
“Harvard suffered a good deal of reputational damage due to recent public stances,” she said. “Still many campus leaders argue that presidents have a moral obligation and a professional duty to join the public debate over the most pressing social issues of the day.”

Such a policy could reinforce the idea of colleges as disengaged ivory towers, she said.