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Harvard professors condemn university stance on free speech in open letter

Dozens of professors signed an open letter to Harvard president Claudine Gay, urging her to protect students’ rights of free speech and form an advisory board for Islamophobia.

Students march around Harvard's campus in a pro-Palestinian demonstration. More than 100 Harvard University professors sent an open letter on Tuesday to university president Claudine Gay, urging Harvard administration to protect its students freedom of speech.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

More than 100 Harvard University professors have sent an open letter to university president Claudine Gay, urging the administration to support “intellectual freedom and open dialogue,” amid pressure from donors to condemn antisemitism on the Ivy League campus.

The professors’ letter condemns a letter sent by Gay on Nov. 9 entitled “Combating Antisemitism,” which outlined ways Harvard will address antisemitism on-campus, and condemned language used by supporters of Palestinians in the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.

The faculty letter, sent earlier this week, follows an an open letter to Gay written last week by the Harvard Jewish Alumni Association, which has threatened to withhold donations unless the university addresses antisemitism on campus.


Harvard history professor Kirsten Weld, who signed the faculty letter , said she and other professors were alarmed by what they saw as the influence of money on Harvard’s stance.

“We were concerned with the forcefulness of organized groups of donors and alumni who were seeking to drive policy on campus when it came to speech,” Weld said. “There has to be space for critical, reasoned, evidence-based dialogue and debate.”

In their letter, professors urged the university to “affirm its commitment to the freedom of thought, inquiry, and expression in light of the extraordinary pressure being brought to bear upon critics of the State of Israel and advocates of the Palestinian people.”

In her letter, Gay condemned the phrase “from the river to the sea,” which is often heard in pro-Palestinian demonstrations and refers to Palestinians’ hope to live freely on the land they once lived on.

“To have a Harvard president condemn this speech goes too far for us,” said Amir Mohareb, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School who signed the professors’ letter.

The conflict at Harvard comes during a tense time where free speech debates unfold on college campuses around the US. In New England, Brandeis University president Ronald Liebowitz banned a pro-Palestinian group earlier this month; 20 Brown University were arrested during a sit-in last week; and Jewish students have allegedly been attacked.


More than 11,200 people, two-thirds of them women and minors, have been killed in Gaza, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry in Ramallah, the Associated Press reported Wednesday. About 2,700 people have been reported missing. Millions more have fled to the territory’s south, and hundreds remain stranded in combat zones, including Gaza’s largest hospital which was raided Wednesday by Israeli forces.

Mohareb said the debate over protected free speech on campuses is ongoing, but maintained that freedom of speech — and the disagreements that come with it — is an essential part of higher education. Engaging with different ideas outside the classroom is just as valuable as learning inside it, he said.

“An institutional environment should be safe for people of all identities and walks of life but, at the same time, not infringe on speech that’s very important for these global issues,” Mohareb said. “A big part of the education is being exposed to ideas and opinions that one doesn’t agree with.”

A spokesperson from Harvard confirmed the university’s receipt of the open letter but declined the Globe’s request for comment.

To address threats to students on both sides of the conflict, the letter from professors demanded the formation of an advisory group on Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism. Israeli president Isaac Herzog published last week a letter to American colleges and universities urging them to denounce and address antisemitism on campuses. Weld said it is important that all students feel safe on their campuses, and asked who was advocating for the rights of Muslim, Arab, and Palestinian students.


“In a conflict with high stakes, [Harvard] may not want to look as though it is taking a side, but if it only takes a task force for one group of students, it sends a message that protecting one group of members of its community is more important than protecting others,” she said.

Rita Hamad, a professor at Harvard’s school of public health who signed the letter to Gay, also attended Harvard in the early 2000s. During her time as a student, Hamad co-wrote an op-ed for the student newspaper, the Harvard Crimson, about Islamophobia in the wake of 9/11. The op-ed is strikingly similar in its critiques of protected speech on college campuses, Weld and other signatories noted.

“Student critics of Israeli policies are no more anti-Semitic than opponents of apartheid were anti-Afrikaner or advocates of Tibet are anti-Chinese,” Hamad wrote in the piece, which ran in 2002. “Criticizing the actions and laws of a country is very different from attacking people for their religion, nationality or ethnicity.”

The argument Hamad made over two decades ago is the same one she and more than 100 other professors at Harvard presented in their letter to Gay.


Despite efforts to quell discourse and activism, Harvard students remain involved with the pro-Palestinian movement, Mohareb said.

“I am very impressed and energized by what our students at all our local institutions are doing to speak up for people in Gaza,” he said.

Vivi Smilgius can be reached at vivi.smilgius@globe.com. Follow her @viviraye.