Political Agendas Are Dangerous for Academia

Avi Loeb
4 min readJan 13, 2024


Ending scene from the movie “Thelma and Louise”.

In February 1967, the University of Chicago tasked the Kalven Committee to prepare “a statement on the University’s role in political and social action.” The resulting Kalven Report is currently an extremely important policy document, as it affirms the University’s commitment to academic freedom of faculty and students while insisting on institutional neutrality regarding political and social issues.

Harvard University did not follow suit. In recent months, classes at Harvard were disrupted by protestors with a political agenda. Most recently, Jewish students sued Harvard for tolerating anti-Semitic harassment, assault and intimidation. As any other member of the Harvard community, I am deeply concerned about maintaining Harvard’s commitment to excellence in scholarship as well as academic freedom despite the recent turmoil. I had summarized my vision for a better future in a recent essay.

The disruption of academic scholarship takes other forms in other elite campuses. For example, it was reported recently that “a self-survey conducted by the University of California at Berkeley, found that during a search for faculty in the life sciences department, 76 percent of applicants were eliminated solely on the basis of their diversity statements.” It is common for postdoctoral fellows of exceptional quality to encounter difficulties in securing a faculty appointment just based on their scholarly excellence and without adopting a political agenda.

Another concern involves academic freedom, which is challenged by the narrowing in the dispersion of political views on campuses. At Harvard’s Faculty of Arts & Sciences, the latest poll by the Crimson newspaper implied that only 1.5% of the faculty characterize their political leaning as “conservative”. The disparity between this landscape and American society inevitably generates mental stress for students originating from conservative households. The true meaning of diversity and inclusion is for universities to embrace the full scope of American society and subscribe to the true meaning of academic freedom. Favoring one side of the political spectrum amplifies societal polarization at a time when it should be lessened.

In another recent essay, I argued that tribalism and hate pose a major threat to our nation, especially in an election year. The extremes on both sides of the political map fuel each other with unreasonable agendas. Their echo chambers damage academic freedom and fuel hate. The only way to correct the course is by empowering a diversity of opinions, including important feedback from critics. The feedback loop is broken when McCarthyism prevails and academic freedom is suppressed.

FIRE’s most recent faculty survey revealed that 91 percent of professors said they were at least somewhat likely to self-censor in their speech on social media, in meetings, in presentations or in publications. This confirms what I hear directly from Harvard colleagues who are afraid to speak publicly because of concerns about retribution.

In an interview today for the “Regulating AI Podcast” with Sanjay Puri, I noted that Artificial Intelligence (AI) could be designed to suppress hate and polarization in society based on our cherished ethical principles. In order to promote this goal, social scientists, philosophers and psychologists should engage in “humanities of the future,” the interdisciplinary intersection of AI technology, policy and entrepreneurship. Harvard could play a leading role in promoting this apolitical vision to moderate societal tensions.

Without adhering to Kalven’s Report, Harvard’s intellectual bubble was doomed to explode when confronted with the political stress after October 7. The key question is how to make the future better. Harvard’s Corporation is not subjected to oversight and it is unclear whether it contains the feedback loop that would allow it to adequately correct the course.

It is easy to blame the political right for Harvard’s misfortunes. But good academic leadership should be indifferent to political circumstances and pursue excellence in scholarship and research in the spirit of the Kalven Report. Coloring the education and research mission of a university by a political agenda makes it vulnerable to attacks from those who do not share this agenda.

From the vantage point of science, the wisdom of the Kalven Report is obvious because the laws of physics can be discovered equally well by republicans and democrats.

Following the above realizations, I was inspired to write a note to Harvard’s Interim President, Alan Garber, stating: “We can and we absolutely need to do better. I will be delighted to meet with you in person and discuss ways to promote a better future. Harvard can lead the way and serve as a beacon of hope for all American elite universities.”

I hope that someone is listening. If those in the driver’s seat will maintain course with no attention to feedback, our fate will resemble that of Thelma and Louise who kept going over the edge of the Grand Canyon in the ending scene of the movie.


Image credit: Chris Michel (October 2023)

Avi Loeb is the head of the Galileo Project, founding director of Harvard University’s — Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011–2020). He chairs the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project, and is a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a former chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies. He is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” and a co-author of the textbook “Life in the Cosmos”, both published in 2021. His new book, titled “Interstellar”, was published in August 2023.



Avi Loeb

Avi Loeb is the Baird Professor of Science and Institute director at Harvard University and the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial” and "Interstellar".