Harvard University leadership has had a contentious eight months since the Oct. 7 attack on Israel and the subsequent catastrophic war in Gaza. Criticism from all sides took shape after Harvard’s then-president Claudine Gay released a statement about the conflict. Some say it took too long, said too much, or not enough. 

What’s significant about Harvard’s standards is that they set a tone for higher education across the country. So when Harvard leadership released a statement earlier this week that the university would no longer take an official stance on controversial issues, the question is: Will other universities follow suit?

Harvard Professor Noah Feldman, also the co-chair of the university’s Institutional Voice Working Group, which authored the report, joined GBH’s All Things Considered host Arun Rath to discuss the reasoning behind the new policy. What follows is a lightly edited transcript.

Arun Rath: Before diving in, I have a question I’m not sure if you actually know the answer, but do we know when universities — Harvard or otherwise — started taking positions on things?

Noah Feldman: That’s a great question. What I can say is that, as early as 1967, the University of Chicago pretty much alone decided that it would adopt what it called a policy of “institutional neutrality.” That’s because people there were worried that they might come to take positions on things.

Subsequent to that, I think most universities tried to avoid major issues. It was really with the rise of social media, and then, after that, a polarized political environment, that statements started to be more frequent, on the one hand, and more controversial, on the other.

Rath: It’s interesting that you mention the University of Chicago using the term “neutrality.” A lot of the coverage of the Harvard position has used the word and called it a “policy of neutrality.” But your report doesn’t use that term, right?

Feldman: That’s exactly right. In fact, we go out of our way to say that this isn’t a policy of neutrality. The university isn’t neutral because the university is committed to a specific goal — namely, pursuing the truth — and to specific values about the best way to get to the truth — namely, open inquiry, research, experiment, reason and argument.

Seeing through that lens, when those kinds of values are under attack, which they very much are in the world today, the university, according to our report, can and should speak out — speak out forcefully, and speak out non-neutrally, in defense of the basic values that are required to run a university and run a university well.

What it shouldn’t do is speak about the matters that it doesn’t have the expertise and that are outside of its core function, and those are sort of broader questions of foreign policy, or domestic policy, or other things where the creation of an official position doesn’t really contribute to the question of what’s true or what’s right. It’s just a formal way for a university to get behind some point of view. And our report suggests that the university is actually harming its mission when it does that rather than helping it.

Rath: So for instance, the university could still take a position on things that have to do with, say, academic freedom? Things that directly affect you?

Feldman: Can and should. Academic freedom is crucial to running a university, and so our leadership has to speak out forcefully and officially about that.

[It’s the] same if Donald Trump decides — as he’s promising to do right now — to tax, as he puts it, “billions and billions of dollars” from big university endowments to create his very own online “American Academy.” That’s a terrible idea. Our leadership needs to be able to speak out clearly and say that would not be a good use of the resources of educational institutions today.

There’s lots of things where values are implicated — values that are crucial to running a university, and the university has to speak out and it shouldn’t be neutral.

Rath: Now, is this policy just for official statements from the university? Does this apply to, say, professors making statements?

Feldman: There’s a big distinction because professors have academic freedom. So do students. That means that professors can speak out in their own names — and being identified as professors, like [how] you identified me as a professor at the beginning of our conversation — about anything we want, whenever we want.

Now, there’s a separate question of whether anyone should listen to us or not. On that question, I think my own view would be: listen to us when we know what we’re talking about. So, rely on our expertise, and maybe listen to us a little less if we’re talking about something that’s way outside of our lands. But we have the freedom to say that, no matter what.

Our report is about the very different question of people or bodies that purport to speak on behalf of the whole university — that’s the president, provost, deans, chairs of departments, and whole faculties voting together to adopt statements. We’re saying that all of those entities, which don’t have inherent academic freedom the way individual faculty do, should not speak out on matters that are beyond their zones of expertise and, in many cases, should not make official statements of any kind.

Rath: Can you talk about the forces that are at play that are kind of making universities take positions on these kinds of issues? Are you still expecting to feel that, even when this policy is in place?

Feldman: The forces come mostly from the many different strands of political preference, all of whom think that if the university could have an official statement, then it should have its position as its official statement.

Lots of these folks — whether inside or outside the university — are very well motivated. They believe there’s a right and a wrong about some questions, and they think it will help their cause if the university says they’re right. So they then begin to lobby the university. Again, those could be students, faculty or staff from the inside. It could be forces from the outside — not only donors but also politicians, as we’ve seen with Congress.

What those different players do is they try to force the university — try to pressure the university — to say what they want to say. If the university falls short, or doesn’t say it in the timing that they want, or in the way they want, then they intensely criticize the university.

What makes that so hard, and actually, truth be told, impossible for the university, is that these are always about very controversial topics. If somebody is happy with what the university has said as its official stance, someone else is going to be extremely unhappy.

Our universities are big, they’re global. They’ve got thousands and thousands of members from all over the world with really different positions on many, many topics — which, by the way, is good. You need that in a university so people can learn and disagree with each other. If you have that, but the university is being pressured to take a single position on a given policy issue, it’s a recipe for deep dissatisfaction both inside the university and also outside the university.

That’s why we’ve recommended getting out of that business altogether and focusing, as a matter of official statements, only on things that the leadership of the university is really expert in — namely, how to run a university according to the basic values of open inquiry and academic freedom.

Rath: Do you have a sense, from other institutions, if they might also be leaning towards adopting this kind of a policy?

Feldman: My sense, from speaking to colleagues at lots of other universities, is that there’s a kind of ferment right now in a lot of places to converge on the kind of policy that I’m describing.

I think a lot of universities accept the point that we’re not really neutral and that it’s very hard to have a “neutral position” nowadays because if you say something, that’s not neutral, and if you don’t say something, that’s not neutral either. But universities, at the same time, want to make sure that they’re not caught in the middle in the way lots of us have been.

I think the solution that people are converging on is an expertise-based account. The individual members of the faculty can speak about whatever they want, and they often have expertise. But the university — at the official level — should not speak, except on a handful of things where it is an expert. Those are things that have to do with the core functioning of the university.

Rath: So Noah, is this policy now going to sort of solve the problem right away?

Feldman: Realistically, no. I don’t think that issuing one clear report and adopting a new policy is going to convince the internet overnight that the university isn’t going to take positions. What’s going to be required is repetition. We have to say, again and again and again, in every forum where anyone will listen, that the university is no longer making official statements or taking official positions on things outside of its core mission.

Over time, as people gradually take that on board, then the pressures on the university will slowly, slowly begin to lift. But, to be realistic, that will take a little while.