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Rahman ’26: Brown must adopt institutional neutrality

In a hearing before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, then-Presidents Liz Magill of Penn and Claudine Gay of Harvard, as well as President Sally Kornbluth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, were asked if “calling for the genocide of Jews” violates each president’s respective universities’ rules on bullying and harassment. In a shocking move to many, all three presidents repeatedly evaded the question. Gay explained that whether such statements constitute harassment in violation of policy was “depend[s] on the context.” The resulting backlash sparked the eventual resignation of Magill and Gay. 

When reading about this saga, what strikes me most is that these presidents were entirely correct in stating that speech is actionable if, and only if, “the speech turns into conduct,” as Magill stated. Indeed, Brown’s own Code of Student Conduct states “whether the alleged conduct constitutes harassment depends on the totality of the particular circumstances.” Likewise, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights writes that harassment “must include something beyond the mere expression of views, words, symbols or thoughts that some person finds offensive.” And yet, to many, their overly legalistic and tone-deaf responses came off as incendiary given the universities’ inclination to endorse certain social movements without concern for neutrality.

Higher education is under attack, and in large part we have allowed ourselves to become vulnerable to the onslaught because we have inconsistently applied our principles of free inquiry. So when administrators, such as Magill or Gay, cite academic freedom as the reason to tolerate harmful speech, they have little credibility. Brown must avoid the same fate — but the absence of formal institutional neutrality stands in the way.

The idea that we should allow hateful speech might seem contradictory to the progressive society in which we live. But the fact is that at the margins it is difficult to define hate speech. For example, when protesters chant “from the river to the sea” or “globalize the intifada,” some, myself included, see that as antisemitic, at the very least. Or when conservatives respond to protests against police brutality with the slogan “Blue Lives Matter,” many, myself included, see that as racist, at the very least. But given the multitude of interpretations of phrases like these, it is impossible to reach a universally accepted definition of hate speech.


While the three presidents at the congressional hearing were correct that university responses to any speech should be context dependent, the contemporary actions of their institutions have not reflected this belief. In recent years, universities have become shameless in taking institutional stances and censoring speech which contradict social norms. Therefore, when asked why their commitment to principles is suddenly important today, when it comes to antisemitism, they have no response. When asked why their institutions didn’t take a stronger stance after October 7th, when they forcefully and immediately responded to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the murder of George Floyd, they have no response. The tendency of universities to take a stance contradicts their recent responses to antisemitism on campus, which includes hedged, legalistic language.

I have previously written that universities must not take stances on political matters, but in an increasingly illiberal America, I now believe we ought to go further. It’s time for higher education to adopt institutional neutrality. While in theory it sounds simple, in practice, it’s much harder. After all, where do you draw the line? On what matters can you comment?

Brown, as a principle, must refrain from condemning its own scholars or making statements on national and international current events when they don’t directly pertain to campus. Instead, our focus should be on supporting students and promoting scholarship surrounding controversial issues. That’s not to say that universities should never speak out. In cases where there are on-campus incidents of bias or harm or threats to the very institution of higher education, it is absolutely appropriate for universities to convey its condemnation. But looking inward, universities can again fulfill their roles as centers of scholarship and discourse.

As succinctly put by Harvard Professor of History Alison Frank Johnson, “critics count the number of hours between a tragic event and a statement and use that as a metric to decide how much and whether the administration cares.” By responding to every crisis, today’s universities have dug their own grave. The McCarthy-esque show trial of the hearing was a natural conclusion.

In response to the recent turmoil on campus, Harvard is currently exploring a policy of institutional neutrality. Why should we wait for Brown to learn the same lesson the hard way?

Institutional neutrality can also help to alleviate the tremendous pressure universities face from donors — who wield undue and improper influence — from Washington, from the public and from students who have come to expect their institutions take positions on every issue. But most of all, it will allow higher education to regain the trust of the American people in the principles and missions we hold dear.

Tas Rahman ’26 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and other op-eds to


Tasawwar Rahman

Tas Rahman is a staff columnist at the Brown Daily Herald writing about issues in higher education. When he's not coding or studying biochemistry, you can find him hiking and enjoying the great outdoors.

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