Sunday, March 12, 2017

Professor Haig's motion against compelled oaths

This is a guest post by Professor David Haig of the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology.

At the meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences of November 1, 2016 I spoke in favor of the Lewis motion in these words.

“There is good will on both sides of this debate. I have three concerns about the current policy.
First is the issue of consistency. If we sanction students for membership in groups of which we disapprove, we can less credibly defend the rights of students to belong to groups of which we approve but are disapproved of by others in authority in other times and other places.
Second is the issue of guilt by association and collective punishment. Racial and religious profiling are commonly justified by statistical associations with crime. Are we justified in sanctioning all members of female-only and male-only groups because of statistical associations and the criminal behaviors of some members of some groups?
Third is the issue of student autonomy. All our students are members of the College community whether or not we approve of their choices or opinions. If we believe in the transformative power of a liberal arts education, and desire the intellectual, social, and personal transformation of our students, then our desire should be to achieve these ends by intellectual argument to transform their hearts and their minds. The current policy attempts to coerce the choices of students, by changing their self interest, without a fundamental change in their values. We risk changing the choice without changing the chooser.”

The second of these concerns referred to a common claim at the time that the policy of sanctioning members of ‘unrecognized single-gender social organizations’ was directed at the problem of sexual assault on campus. We now hear less of this justification for the sanctions policy. I consider my first and third points to be my principal objections to the policy, particularly the third. The phrases ‘transformative power of a liberal arts education’ and ‘intellectual, social, and personal transformation’ come from the mission statement of Harvard College as frequently articulated by Dean Rakesh Khurana. My use of his words was an attempt to speak to him directly, to beseech him consider that he might be mistaken.

One of my unspoken concerns was the question of how the policy would be implemented. My fear of ‘mission creep’ has been fully justified by the report of the Implementation Committee that has been accepted by Dean Khurana. The laudable aim of gender-inclusivity has metamorphosed into a proposal that students seeking certain awards or offices are required to affirm that they are in compliance with “the College’s policy regarding the principle of non-discrimination, particularly with regard to membership in unrecognized single-gender social organizations.” What happens if a student refuses to take this affirmation on the principle that they are opposed to such oaths? Would they be in contempt of the College’s policy and thereby ineligible for the aforementioned awards and offices? What happens if a student cannot in conscience affirm they are in compliance with the College’s policy because the student sincerely believes in a different principle of non-discrimination? Where is the space for dissent? Who determines the policy and what are the mechanisms of revision? Are there constraints on unilateral changes (by self-appointed arbiters of student virtue) of the policy to be affirmed?

I consider the requirement for such an affirmation to be a dangerous precedent. What if some future government declared particular kinds of organizations illegal and demanded oaths of non-membership from all college students. The faculty would be on firmer ground to resist such demands if it did not require similar oaths from our students. For these reasons, I have presented a motion to the Faculty that

“This faculty does not approve of Harvard College requiring a student to make an oath, pledge or affirmation about whether the student belongs to a particular organization or category of organizations.”

The motion is deliberately worded as disapprobation of oaths rather than prohibition of oaths because I did not want the motion to be complicated by the disputed question of whether the faculty or the administration has ultimate jurisdiction in this matter. In a similar vein, the motion does not address the disputed sanctions policy itself but rather its implementation in the requirement for an affirmation. It might also be argued that the motion is premature and should be postponed until after the recently announced committee of review makes its recommendations. I believe that that committee would benefit from knowing the sense of the faculty on the question of affirmations before making its recommendations.

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