Dear Members of the Harvard Chan School Community,
I had the pleasure of welcoming our wonderful incoming students yesterday as we kicked off Orientation Week. I shared with them some reflections on the importance of learning to listen to and debate with people who hold sharply different worldviews. I’m writing to all of you with some further reflections on this topic—reflections that are especially timely for our community.
As we prepare to start the academic year, we face a moment that challenges us to think deeply about our inviolable values of inclusivity, diversity, equity, and belonging, as well as our steadfast commitment to academic freedom and free expression—and to grapple with the ways those values can sometimes collide uncomfortably.
In a paper published over the weekend in the online journal Global Epidemiology, and another due to be published soon, longtime faculty member Tyler J. VanderWeele, the John L. Loeb and Frances Lehman Professor of Epidemiology, writes about his own experience last spring, when members of this community expressed concerns about the content of some of his writings and his viewpoints on same-sex marriage and issues related to abortion and gender identity. In the new pieces, he shares his perception that minority views may not be welcome in academic public health, including at Harvard Chan School.
My team and I believe that they are—and should be.
I want to be clear that Professor VanderWeele’s publications, old and new, are protected under the principles of academic freedom. Both his writings and critiques of his writings are also protected by Harvard Chan School’s commitment to freedom of expression.
I want to be clear, too, that Harvard Chan School is fully committed to inclusivity and belonging for people of all abilities, ages, gender identities, national origins, political beliefs, races, religions, and sexual orientations. We respect the dignity and worth of every human being, across all differences.
These new publications by Professor VanderWeele may stir strong emotions and prompt questions about power and privilege. My colleagues in School leadership and I are here to listen, to talk, and to work through these issues together with all of you. I’ve listed additional resources at the end of this email.
I believe it is important to hold several principles in mind as we consider these events. We must continue to defend free speech and to welcome a wide breadth of viewpoints from our faculty, students, staff, and guest speakers. This isn’t just a matter of intellectual curiosity; it’s vital to our common goals. To advance public health, we must all learn to listen respectfully and respond thoughtfully to people from a great many backgrounds and perspectives—even when others’ views are upsetting or even painful to hear. We model civil discourse by engaging in substantive debate around evidence and ideas, rather than attacks on character or motive.
But it’s also important to acknowledge that even with these guardrails, speech can have consequences for members of our community, for personal and professional relationships, and for our institutional culture. And members of the community have every right to express how others’ speech—even protected speech—affects them personally. It is incumbent on all of us to do what we can to support one another through those difficult moments.
The issues raised here are not unique to Harvard Chan School. Academic institutions across the country have faced similar concerns. The field of public health, too, has struggled with questions about how to foster civil, evidence-based debate in an atmosphere of intense polarization.
My colleagues and I are committed to making Harvard Chan School a model forum for informed civil discourse, even on difficult subjects. Already, we have taken several steps that we hope will be helpful:
- We’ve added new material about the School’s commitment to free expression and open debate to the Student Handbook.
- We’ve developed a detailed FAQ about academic freedom, free speech, and freedom of expression for both students and academic appointees.
- We’re strengthening supports for the LGBTQ+ community at Harvard Chan School, including developing a list of LGBTQ+ faculty and staff who are eager to serve as resources for students.
- We’re working with expert advisers to develop programs to strengthen our collective ability to hold difficult conversations across differences, both in the classroom and throughout the workplace.
- We’re creating new opportunities for students to engage with a broad cross-section of School leadership to strengthen relationships and build trust.
Jane J. Kim, SM ’01, PhD ’05
Interim Dean of the Faculty
Dean for Academic Affairs
K.T. Li Professor of Health Economics
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Lilu Barbosa, Chief Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging Officer, 617-432-0215
Maritza Hernandez, Associate Dean for Student Services
Jennifer Ivers, Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs
Linda Picard, Chief Human Resources Officer
Harvard Ombuds Office – A confidential resource available to the Harvard community, 617-432-4041
Office for Gender Equity – A University office to raise concerns and connect to resources
Harvard Chaplains – A professional community of more than 30 chaplains, 617-495-5529