As racism continues to engulf campuses in paroxysms of aggrievement and perceived oppression by black students, Harvard University has become another in the growing list of universities where professors found themselves victims of the cancel culture. At UCLA, University of Chicago, Cornell, and Skidmore, faculty members were maligned and threatened with termination for purportedly critiquing Black Lives Matter, defending the police against attacks for perceived racist brutality, and even questioning the extent and reality of anti-black racism at their respective institutions and outside the campus walls.
At Harvard, one of the current faculty targets is David Kane, Preceptor in Statistical Methods and Mathematics in the university’s Department of Government, who first made the apparently unforgivable error of inviting Charles Murray to speak to his Gov 50 class. Murray, of course, is a political scientist, libertarian, and the author of the still-controversial 1994 book, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, in which the authors demonstrate, in the most inflammatory section, genetic differences in intelligence between whites and blacks. Although Murray was going to discuss his new book, Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class in Kane’s class, it was Murray’s reputation as an alleged racist, white supremacist that was on students’ minds when they learned of the upcoming speech. “Harvard is the greatest university in the world,” Kane explained in defending his choice. “Whatever you think about the quality of his work, Charles Murray is one of the most influential social scientists of the last 50 years.”
To make matters worse for Kane, some of his assiduous students uncovered racist posts he had allegedly written on his website EphBlog. over the course of several years under the pseudonym “David Dudley Field ’25.”
One of Kane’s posts noted that Williams alum Duncan Robinson (Kane is a 1988 graduate of Williams College) was a high-ranking NBA player this season. “Is the NBA prejudiced against white players?” it asked. “Would Robinson have been undrafted if he were Black?,” suggesting the existence of “Black Supremacy” in the NBA.
Other of Kane’s posts suggest that, due to race preferences, over 90 percent of Black students at Williams College would not have been admitted if it were not for their “Black’ness” [sic], and question why, while Williams College publicly condemned a white supremacist group, the college did not similarly condemn the Black Lives Matter movement and Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.”
A second government professor, Diana J. Schaub, also became a target for her alleged racist ideas. Schaub, a visiting professor who is teaching a course at Harvard on African American political thought, is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), and has actually served as a visiting professor at Harvard before.
In a 2010 article in National Affairs, “America at the Bat,” as one example of what students found objectionable, Schaub noted that “The trend [of the absence of blacks in baseball] has been noted, lamented in some quarters, but nowhere adequately explained. My strong hunch is that the declining interest and involvement in baseball is a consequence of the absence of fathers in the black community.”
In a 2000 article in The National Interest, Schaub observed, “I suspect that the contemporary phenomenon of angry middle-class blacks derives in substantial part from the erosion of both Bible-based faith and faith in Progress. Charitable and hardy souls have been replaced by suspicious and fragile selves, hypersensitized to perceived slights and perpetually aggrieved.”
And in a 2010 article in the Baltimore Sun that tracked reasons behind Baltimore’s population loss, Schaub suggested that, “The decline of marriage, particularly among African-Americans, is all too familiar. Not as well-known is that Maryland has a very high abortion rate (third highest among the states in 2005 . . .). The breakdown by jurisdiction reveals that Baltimore City is driving those deadly numbers, and also that the abortion rate among African-American women is at least triple the white rate.”
The opinions—and even the facts—presented in these articles apparently were too much for some Harvard students, including a Crimson editor majoring in government who wrote that Schaub’s articles are, “if not outright bigoted, ignorant, and deeply concerning.”
In writing about the Kane situation, the Editorial Board of the Harvard Crimson actually called for the professor’s firing. “The posts are unacceptable,” the editorial said. “Our issue with them goes beyond mere differences in political opinion . . . [and] if the allegations that the posts authored by “Field” were written by Kane are true, the suggestion that 90 percent of Black students at Williams don’t belong there and the defense of literal Nazism have irreparably damaged Kane’s ability to serve as an instructor . . . He simply cannot serve as an effective preceptor — certainly not to the Black students whose belonging at higher education institutions (and evidently in this country) he allegedly challenges, but also not to anyone with a basic intolerance for bigotry. In short, David Kane, assuming the allegations are true, must be fired.”
Another government student, writing in an op-ed in the Crimson about both targeted professors, echoed the same sentiment. “So, what Harvard must do now is simple. Fire Kane and Schaub, and any other faculty member with similar unacceptable views [emphasis added],” he wrote. And, to insure that Harvard never employs professors who articulate ideas of which woke students like him do not approve, the university must, he stressed, “establish a proper vetting system that prevents the hiring of others like them” so as not to discomfit students in the future. Why? Because “Experiencing both Schaub’s and Kane’s class at the same time is exhausting for me as a student. To read excerpts of Schaub’s beliefs makes me feel as though I have been betrayed . . . Harvard put these instructors in positions where they could disguise and push their own beliefs under the veil of academic pursuit [Emphasis added.].”
In fact, what has clearly escaped both this censorious student and the young editors of the Harvard Crimson is that academic freedom and academic free speech have as their central purpose precisely what this student has condemned; namely, that “pushing their beliefs” is what academic inquiry is about, that even contentious and sometimes difficult debate is what should define the role of a good professor. The danger is that, despite Harvard’s own policies about academic freedom that would certainly insulate these professors from censure for expressing these ideas, Professor Kane was immediately removed from the Gov 50 class and students had the option to transfer to a different section if they were “exhausted” from the experience, as the op-ed writer was. And minority students in Schaub’s course have been creating a condemnatory tweetstorm about her past writings and alleged racist comments she has been making during class sessions.
“Curtailment of free speech undercuts the intellectual freedom that defines our purpose,” the Harvard policy on free speech reads. “It also deprives some individuals of the right to express unpopular views and others of the right to listen to unpopular views.”
Moreover, in language that echoes Justice Louis D. Brandeis’ notion that “sunlight is the best disinfectant” and that good truth may be realized from hearing bad ideas as well as good ones, the Harvard policy also states that, “Because we are a community united by a commitment to rational processes, we do not permit censorship of noxious ideas. We are committed to maintaining a climate in which reason and speech provide the correct response to a disagreeable idea.”
Professor Kane’s blog posts, if he in fact was the author of them, are certainly controversial and written in a sarcastic manner that might make them ill-advised. But, in fact, over 80 percent of the NBA is comprised of black players, so that joking about the need for affirmative action for white athletes, while ridiculous, is not wholly inaccurate. And the widespread admissions policies which privilege black applicants who have lower grades and tests scores than their non-black peers is hardly a secret in academia, so Kane’s assertion that black Williams students may have benefited from affirmative action policies is not incredible, and certainly not racist.
Similarly, Schaub’s articles expressed unorthodox views about aspects of black life which, though highly opinionated, were based on facts, demography, and social science. Some Harvard students may believe that her views are “unacceptable,” but that is clearly not for undergraduates to determine, and the same is true for their opinions about the ideas of Professor Kane and Charles Murray.
In this, they share a common set of characteristics with students who have sought to censure other professors: it is they, and they alone, who know what is acceptable speech, what ideas are appropriate and allowed, which groups are victims of oppression and should therefore receive special accommodation for their behavior and speech, which views are progressive (and therefore virtuous) and which views are regressive (and therefore hateful), which causes are worthy of support and which are, because of their perceived moral defects, worthy of opprobrium.
It is interesting to note that for the 2020-21 academic year Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator and head of the Negotiations Affairs Department of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), was named as a fellow of “The Future of Diplomacy Project” at Harvard’s Kennedy School Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
When Harvard announced Erekat’s appointment, external criticism was widespread and questioned whether it was appropriate to hire someone known to be virulently anti-Israel; described Palestinian terrorism against Israeli citizens as “self-defense;” stated that Jews would never be allowed to live in Palestine; denied that the Jewish archeological connection to Jerusalem was authentic; equated Israelis with ISIS; and who has routinely lied about Israel perpetrating a “genocide” against the Palestinians, such as his claim that 96% of those killed in Gaza in a 2014 defensive incursion against Hamas, were civilians; promoted the abhorrent notion that the ongoing expansion of Israeli neighborhoods in Judea and Samaria was equivalent to “terrorism;” and even making comparisons between Israel and the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria, claiming that, “There is no difference between the terrorism practiced by the group led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Israel’s terrorism.” In short, Erekat, in his role as a negotiator with Israel, was operating what one Israeli diplomat has characterized as a “an industry of lies,” using obfuscation, terror, intractability, false accusations, and outright falsehoods and blood libels as negotiating tools in an unending effort to weaken and destroy the Jewish state.
But, interestingly and tellingly, no editorials from the Crimson were forthcoming condemning Erekat’s appointment. Jewish students did not write op-eds demanding his firing and complaining that they would be oppressed or “exhausted” by having such a divisive hater of Israel and Jews mentoring students on Harvard’s campus. No one blamed the Kennedy School for hiring someone with a very public and obvious record of bigotry, Jew-hatred, and who is a supporter of an ongoing Palestinian campaign to demonize, slander, and attack Israel, Zionism, and pro-Israel individuals outside of the Jewish state. Kennedy School students did not collectively commit to boycotting Erekat’s seminars or even his right to be on campus in the first place. And, obviously, the Harvard administrators who approved Erekat’s appointment will, if they are called upon to do so, vigorously defend his right to articulate his views about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, regardless how biased, toxic, or ahistorical they may be.
The lesson for some of Harvard’s students is that if they accept without question the current view of many anti-racists of the existence and influence of white supremacy, “white fragility,” systematic racism, and endemic police bias against black victims, for example, they must also consider that there are possible, and justifiable, counterarguments to each of these topics. And the individuals who debate those terms cannot automatically be considered racists, their speech should not be shut down, and they should not arbitrarily be purged from the academy because their ideas are troublesome, unorthodox, insensitive—even cruel.
Why is that? Because, as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. put it so clearly, “if there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought—not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”
Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., a Freedom Center Journalism Fellow in Academic Free Speech and President Emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, is the author of Dispatches From the Campus War Against Israel and Jews.