Harvard Kennedy School Issued Faculty Guidance to Discuss Hamas Attacks with Students


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Harvard Kennedy School Issued Faculty Guidance to Discuss Hamas Attacks with Students

The Harvard Kennedy School issued guidance to its faculty on discussing the Israel-Hamas conflict, according to an Oct. 9 email obtained by The Crimson.
The Harvard Kennedy School issued guidance to its faculty on discussing the Israel-Hamas conflict, according to an Oct. 9 email obtained by The Crimson. By Julian J. Giordano
By Thomas J. Mete and Asher J. Montgomery, Crimson Staff Writers

Two days after Islamist militant group Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel, the Harvard Kennedy School urged faculty to address the ongoing events in their classes — before any public statement had been made by University President Claudine Gay or HKS Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf.

In an Oct. 9 email obtained by The Crimson, HKS Academic Dean for Teaching and Curriculum Suzanne J. Cooper called on faculty members to “not ignore the events in Israel and Gaza,” citing concerns that a lack of response would be viewed by students as “dismissive and could also exacerbate their fear.”

After consulting with her colleagues, Cooper provided suggestions on how faculty members could commence their morning classes. The email outlined “a few potential ways to acknowledge but not have a protracted discussion,” including a moment of silence for “the loss of life,” an example script that could be read in class, and an invitation to discuss the subject with students in office hours.

“I have no easy answers and no special tips that will necessarily make class tomorrow better,” Cooper wrote at the conclusion of the email. “Again, please be compassionate and flexible with students who are experiencing grief, fear, and an unusual degree of worry.”

Cooper’s Oct. 9 email came several hours before Gay and senior Harvard administrators issued an initial public statement that was later widely criticized by Harvard affiliates and politicians for its lateness and lack of condemnation of Hamas. In two subsequent messages to affiliates following the backlash, Gay denounced the attacks by Hamas and disavowed hatred and harassment.

Mathias Risse, the executive director of the Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, wrote in a statement to The Crimson that he appreciated the thoughtfulness of the recommendations.

“The dean’s office thereby signaled that it did not simply leave individual faculty alone with the challenge of how to go about their classes,” Risse said.

Risse wrote that he devoted the entirety of his Philosophy of Technology class on Oct. 11 to discussing the crisis in Gaza — first providing his own thoughts and then opening the discussion for students to speak. To keep the class on schedule, he produced a video to cover the material that was originally scheduled for that day.

“I did this by gauging the mood among my students, not because I received any instructions for what to do,” Risse wrote. “I received a lot of positive feedback for that class, so my sense is that, overall, students appreciated this way of proceeding, given how many people at HKS are close to this situation, one way or another.”

Professor Khalil Gibran Muhammad said in an interview that he and colleagues at other universities found the prompt to speak on this issue “shocking.”

“I’ve never experienced in 25 years of being in academy that faculty would be expected to have something to say explicitly about a matter of world affairs,” he said.

“As you would expect of a topic of major concern, the University would speak on behalf of the institution,” Muhammad said. “But we were expected to do it in our classrooms.”

Cooper declined to comment on criticisms of the email.

Academic Dean David J. Deming said Cooper collected suggestions from some faculty with “relevant experience” and shared them so faculty could “draw on the collective wisdom of their colleagues.”

“A good faith reading of Dean Cooper’s message clearly shows that she was only trying to help fellow faculty members as she has done countless times in service of the teaching mission of HKS,” Deming said.

Harvard Economics professor Jason Furman ’92 — a vocal critic of the University’s initial response on social media — wrote in an emailed statement that he found Cooper’s email to be “helpful” and “appropriate.”

“Many of our students had Israel and Gaza on their minds and frankly many of them had a hard time focusing on anything else,” he wrote. “I found it helpful to give us suggestions — not commands — for how to address it with them is exactly the sort of support and guidance I expect to get from the school.”

“It read like the suggestions we often get for teaching — something that I would expect and hope our dean for teaching would do,” he added.

HKS has faced significant backlash over the University’s response to the attacks by Hamas and a student group statement that called Israel “entirely responsible” for the violence. Earlier this week, former Maryland Governor Larry Hogan withdrew from an HKS fellowship and last week, the Wexner Foundation severed financial ties with the school, citing a”‘dismal failure” by the University to condemn Hamas.

In a statement, professor Pippa Norris wrote that she believes it is important to discuss the conflict in the classroom.

“As one younger participant said, previous to this in their studies they hadn’t paid that much attention to the politics of the Middle East and they wanted to learn more,” Norris wrote. “We shared views because this is an important watershed event with consequences for the world which we all need to understand better.”

—Staff writer Thomas J. Mete can be reached at Follow him on X @thomasjmete.

—Staff writer Asher J. Montgomery can be reached at Follow her on X @asherjmont or on Threads @asher_montgomery.

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