2. The Response by the Dean of Harvard Law School to the Student’s E-Mail

I blogged earlier about the Harvard law student’s e-mail — sent to a couple of friends, but later made public by one of the recipients — about being open to the possibility of racial differences in intelligence. Here, let me briefly talk about the response from the Dean of Harvard Law School.

I sympathize with the Dean’s predicament here. It’s hard to be a Dean, and one often needs to say things in response to a clamor that one say something; I don’t want to fault the Dean too much personally for her response in a difficult situation. But the response itself strikes me as a mistake. It seems to me not to be true to what a university (and, more broadly, our society) should be about.

Here is the full text of the statement:

Dear members of the Harvard Law School community:

I am writing this morning to address an email message in which one of our students suggested that black people are genetically inferior to white people.

This sad and unfortunate incident prompts both reflection and reassertion of important community principles and ideals. We seek to encourage freedom of expression, but freedom of speech should be accompanied by responsibility. This is a community dedicated to intellectual pursuit and social justice. The circulation of one student’s comment does not reflect the views of the school or the overwhelming majority of the members of this community.

As news of the email emerged yesterday, I met with leaders of our Black Law Students Association to discuss how to address the hurt that this has brought to this community. For BLSA, repercussions of the email have been compounded by false reports that BLSA made the email public and pressed the student’s future employer to rescind a job offer. A troubling event and its reverberations can offer an opportunity to increase awareness, and to foster dialogue and understanding. The BLSA leadership brought this view to our meeting yesterday, and I share their wish to turn this moment into one that helps us make progress in a community dedicated to fairness and justice.

Here at Harvard Law School, we are committed to preventing degradation of any individual or group, including race-based insensitivity or hostility. The particular comment in question unfortunately resonates with old and hurtful misconceptions. As an educational institution, we are especially dedicated to exposing to the light of inquiry false views about individuals or groups.

I am heartened to see the apology written by the student who authored the email, and to see her acknowledgement of the offense and hurt that the comment engendered.

I would like to thank the faculty, administrators, and students who have already undertaken serious efforts to increase our chances for mutual understanding, confrontation of falsehoods, and deliberative engagement with difficult issues, and making this an ever better community.

To begin with, let me stress again that, in the e-mail, the author simply said that she “absolutely do[es] not rule out the possibility that African Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent” and that she is “not 100% convinced” that there are no such racial differences in intelligence. And, for reasons I mentioned in my earlier post, I don’t think one can read any more into the e-mail.

Indeed, the student’s e-mail acknowledges the possibility that there are genetic differences between the races. But it seems to me that no university department — no department in an institution that is committed to the notion that factual assertions are properly the subject of debate based on evidence, and not on faith — ought to condemn anyone for acknowledging that possibility. There should be “nothing sad and unfortunate” about someone’s saying that she is unwilling to take factual questions as articles of faith to be assumed for moral reasons, and that she instead prefers to treat them as factual questions on which one needs to be open to rival views.

Now indeed the “comment in question unfortunately resonates with old and hurtful misconceptions.” There have in fact been lots of completely false claims made about racial differences in intelligence. But, as I noted in my earlier post, that cannot dispose of what is after all a factual question about the way the world really is, whether we find it hurtful or not. People who are really interested in knowing the facts should not, it seems to me, be stymied by the likelihood that the inquiry into those facts might “resonate[] with old and hurtful misconceptions.”

Nor do I see any basis for the Dean to suggest — and here, I think, I am right to infer this suggestion from the message — that the student’s e-mail represents “false views about individuals or groups.” If in fact there were some 100% certain proof that there are no intelligence differences between blacks and whites, the original e-mail might be condemned as expressing “false views.” But given the limitations of science generally, and of our very limited current knowledge of human genetics and intelligence in particular, I find it hard to believe that the Dean has any such certain proof.

Likewise, whatever “Here at Harvard Law School, we are committed to preventing degradation of any individual or group, including race-based insensitivity or hostility” might mean, I hope that it doesn’t mean that they are committed to suppressing even the openness to scientific possibilities that might lead some people to a negative view of certain groups. Again, this goes to the heart of what a research university must be: To borrow a term, the search for “VERITAS,” which is to say the search for truth. An openness to all the possible answers to questions of scientific fact, and a recognition of the inevitably uncertainty about facts — especially when the infant state of the discipline ensures such uncertainty — is the first thing that all departments at Harvard must be committed to.

And I, for one, am disheartened that — for perfectly understandable reasons — a student at a research university feels the need to apologize for having the temerity to be open to scientific evidence on a scientific question, and for deciding to express her openness to her friends.

Now there was something “sad and unfortunate” and lacking in “responsibility” in the circulation of the original e-mail: As best I can tell, the recipients forwarded the sender’s e-mail without the sender’s permissions. That is generally not proper with regard to personal mail, especially personal mail that refers back to an earlier conversation and may be hard to evaluate fully without knowing that conversation. If that were all that the Dean was condemning, I would agree with her. But my sense is that the Dean is condemning the sender, not the forwarders.

* * *

Let me stress again: I’m blogging about this uncomfortable subject because I think this controversy goes to the heart of how our universities — and how our society — should operate. I think we need to encourage, not condemn, people’s openness even to distressing and potentially socially dangerous answers to factual questions.

That is what a scientific approach to questions of scientific fact, I think, requires. And that is also what I think is morally proper: It is wrong to condemn someone for treating factual questions as factual questions that require evidence and constant openness to alternative conclusions — rather than as questions of faith.