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The Big Story: Harvard Says It Will No Longer Take Positions on Matters Outside of the University

“‘Harvard isn’t a government,’ Noah Feldman, a Harvard law professor and a co-chair of the committee that developed the recommendations, said in an interview with The Harvard Gazette, released Tuesday as part of the university’s announcement. ‘It shouldn’t have a foreign policy or a domestic policy.'”

Know who you are…and stick with it

By Tim Stewart & Isaac Squyres
3-minute read

When an institution as prominent as Harvard University makes a public pledge to speak out less, everyone should sit up and take note. An organization that takes pride in its strong and longstanding reputation and feels confident in its voice, is choosing to use that voice less often. Worried, it seems, about the consequences of saying – or doing – something that is too controversial for a large enough segment of its stakeholder universe that it creates structural, operational and potentially reputational problems. Sound familiar?

Once again, this is a good moment for healthcare executives and Marcom leaders to pause and revisit their own organization’s policies on speaking out.

Sure. It remains to be seen what this new, very public position on speaking out less really means in practice. And whether Harvard sticks with it. How Harvard – or any other institution set to implement a similar policy – defines matters that are or are not “relevant to the core function of the university” will be worth watching. And we’re willing to bet, judged in and of itself.

Inevitably, there will be a situation where Harvard chooses to take a stand on a social or (geo)political issue that some segment of their internal audience of students, faculty and donors disagrees with. Maybe it will even be this policy change. After all, this move gives the somewhat ironic impression of a measure taken and statement made in reaction to the serious criticism academic institutions around the country have faced over the last few months.

And yet, going to the pages of The New York Times shows the seriousness of the move and the scale of the challenge any trusted institution has in threading the needle of taking a stand without going too far.

We’ve written before about how fraught the speak out/not speak decision can be for healthcare providers. Ukraine, Gun violence, abortion…even the very issue that led to Harvard’s change in policy, the Israel-Hamas war. The challenges for hospitals are largely the same as those for institutes of higher learning: It is not a leap to connect many social issues to healthcare, and it’s an even smaller – maybe nonexistent – leap to see a role for colleges and universities since they have an even wider lens. The stakeholders for both are diverse, ranging from leadership/boards to faculty/staff to patients/students.

So, as you evaluate your organization’s policies on whether to make a statement and what issues are “relevant to the core function of the [hospital],” consider the six suggestions in this piece as a refresher. Then, weave in the following considerations. But above all, remember:

Proclamations are meaningless. What’s meaningful is staying consistent in assessing when a situation demands your organization’s voice.

Potential stumbling blocks to avoid

  • The desire to say something, or nothing. It’s easy to talk oneself into reasons why This Thing is The Thing that demands a response (or silence).
  • Conflict among different segments of your large, complex organization. Of course, you know this as Harvard does. Blowback can and will come from internal audiences as well as external.
  • Inaccurately estimating the intensity of the conversation – and possibly noise – both internally and externally. This can create a false sense of scale and urgency.

Things to know

  • Your position. Does the organization have an articulate, thoughtful take on the issue? That includes both words and work? Is your board and leadership aligned on the risk and reward of taking that position?
  • Your organization. The issue may be a one-and-done thing, but it’s more likely to continue. Be ready to evaluate the outcome by defining the metrics that can indicate activity on the part of the organization and responses from its audiences. Know, too, where the organization may be vulnerable on key issues, what investments and statements it has made in the past and will in the future. In short, do your own opposition research.
  • Your lane. This includes having a clear understanding of why this issue is one on which your organization can speak compassionately and with authority. It should also have a direct tie to your mission. And it requires a relentless focus on, well, staying focused. Acknowledge the threat of scope creep and divergent positions undermining the good work you’ve done.

Steps to take

  • Define your universe. Evaluate the stakeholders and audiences such as donors (if applicable), board, physicians, nurses and community partners, among others. Dig into the dynamics that exist within each group,
  • Articulate roles. Always, always, know who should be taking the lead on speaking up, even if it’s to say that the organization won’t be weighing in. The messenger is a message.
  • Outline impacts. So many of these stories about an organization having to walk back a position result from unintended consequences. Of course, not every outcome can be predicted. But tunnel vision is real. Collect ideas and information from many and varying perspectives and have conversations about what you might be missing.
  • Communicate thoughtfully and compassionately (if at all). With an acknowledgment of how your position – and any resulting action – affects different audiences. In all things, stay rooted in your mission.