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Finally, a lesson worth learning from Harvard

OpinionFinally, a lesson worth learning from Harvard

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Last month, Harvard University finally got a public statement correct. It released a “Report on Institutional Voice in the University” committing to refrain from issuing empathy statements on matters “not relevant to the core function of the University.” 

Corporate America should learn from Harvard and do the same. 

If followed, Harvard will no longer make official comments, which it has in the past, on issues ranging from racial injustice, to the overturning of Roe vs. Wade, to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, to the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks in Israel

Harvard logo

If Harvard follows its new policy, it will no longer make official comments on issues ranging from racial injustice, to the overturning of Roe vs. Wade to Hamas’ attack on Israel. (Michael Fein/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The reason is simple: “Harvard isn’t a government,” Noah Feldman, a Harvard law professor and a co-chair of the committee that developed the recommendations explained in an interview. “It shouldn’t have a foreign policy or a domestic policy.”

HARVARD ANNOUNCES NEW RESTRICTIONS ON STATEMENTS ABOUT ‘CONTROVERSIAL PUBLIC POLICY ISSUES’

Taking sides on contested public policy issues has damaged the university’s reputation. Harvard’s net favorability rating plummeted 15 points among U.S. adults after their botched response to the Oct. 7 attacks. Early admission applications for the class of 2028 declined 17% and overall applications were down 5%. 

To reverse the trends, Harvard will only comment on issues related to its mission of pursuing truth through “open inquiry, debate, and weighing the evidence.” 

Attacks on academic free speech might prompt a response from Harvard. The next international conflict will not. When activists demand a response, Harvard now has a clear plan for its reply, or lack thereof. Its silence is no longer a political statement, but policy. 

ISRAELI, AMERICAN FLAG DISPLAY VANDALIZED AT HARVARD UNIVERSITY

Many corporations have seen similar reputation and customer declines after wading into political controversies. Disney’s net favorability score fell over 40 points after going to war with Gov. Ron DeSantis over Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act. Bud Light sales still haven’t recovered after sponsoring controversial transgender activist Dylan Mulvaney. Hims & Hers stock lost $210 million in value the day after the CEO said he was “eager” to hire anti-Israel protesters. 

None of these corporations has issued clear commitments that they will refrain from taking positions on issues unrelated to their missions. They continue to listen to so-called experts like McKinsey and BlackRock who say companies have to earn their “social license” to operate by appeasing their many stakeholders. This includes taking stands on issues from climate change, to immigration policy, to policing tactics, even when a company’s mission is selling soap. 

Times are now changing. A recent Gallup poll showed only 41% of Americans think companies should make statements on current events. What about the Gen Z population that many companies are trying to reach? That number only jumps to 53%. Why would companies want to alienate almost half of their future talent pool and customer base?

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Crypto currency exchange Coinbase shows how Harvard’s commitment can be applied to the corporate world. In September 2020, CEO Brian Armstrong proclaimed Coinbase to be a “mission driven” company after employees threatened a walkout over his refusal to publicly support Black Lives Matter. 

He wrote a letter to employees saying that his company would “focus on being the best company we can be, and making progress towards our mission, as compared to broader societal issues.” Coinbase would still comment on matters related to crypto currency. Not civil unrest. 

Many people criticized the letter. Some employees quit. Coinbase thrived. Coinbase is now the largest U.S. crypto exchange, surviving the collapse of politically distracted competitors like FTX.

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Even Google – a Silicon Valley tech giant known for its open discourse and generally leftist-tilt – is starting to wake up to the risks of unbridled activism. In a stunning reversal of previous company policy, it fired pro-Palestinian employees protesting the company’s contracts with Israel. 

But importantly, it went further, explaining its actions and policy in a memo to all employees: “we are a workplace and our policies and expectations are clear: this is a business, and not a place to act in a way that disrupts coworkers or makes them feel unsafe, to attempt to use the company as a personal platform, or to fight over disruptive issues or debate politics.” 

Who would have thought that the company so committed to DEI that it refused to depict White Founding Fathers would, in the span of a couple of months, be the first to say “no more”?

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The environment for more companies to publicly commit to their missions and stay out of current events is better than ever. Harvard’s statement generated little criticism. Fortune 500 companies will generate even less. But they will have a powerful policy in place for the next current event.

It’s time to once again take lessons from Harvard.

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