Since early December, the end of my 20-year career teaching at Harvard has been the subject of articles, op-eds, tweets from a billionaire, and even a congressional hearing. I have become a poster child for how the growing campus DEI—Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion—bureaucracies strangle free speech. My ordeal has been used to illustrate the hypocrisy of the assertions by Harvard’s leaders that they honor the robust exchange of challenging ideas.
To be a central example of what has gone wrong in higher education feels surreal. If there is any silver lining to losing the career that I found so fulfilling, perhaps it’s that my story will help explain the fear that stalks campuses, a fear that spreads every time someone is punished for their speech.
The December 5, 2023, congressional hearing on the rise of antisemitism at colleges did not go well for the presidents of Harvard, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania. They were accused of failing to condemn the public antisemitic statements made on their campuses. Their defense, as asserted by then-Harvard president Claudine Gay, was that their administrations were “deeply committed to free expression.”
That’s where I came in.
As Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI) said at the hearing, “Carole Hooven, an evolutionary biologist, was forced to resign, because she stated that a person’s sex is biological and binary. . . . and so, President Gay, in what world is a call for violence against Jews protected speech, but a belief that sex is biological and binary isn’t?”
The world Walberg asks about is that of our colleges and universities, particularly elite ones. While the stated aims of DEI may have been laudable, in practice, DEI culture allows the recasting of certain ideas as “dangerous” or “harmful,” which squashes viewpoint diversity and the open, vigorous debate that should be at the heart of a thriving institution of higher education. So while I was not “forced” to resign, Harvard’s culture of intolerance—particularly toward my scientific views on the nature of sex—led me to feel that my only choice was to leave.
At the December congressional hearing, Claudine Gay’s response to Rep. Walberg’s question was a soundbite that severely distorted the truth:
From the moment that our students arrive on campus, whether it is to begin their Harvard journey as an undergraduate or at one of the professional schools, the message to them is clear—that we are an inclusive community but one deeply committed to free expression.
Today, Harvard’s commitment to free expression is anything but clear. Harvard came in dead last in the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression’s free speech rankings, which detailed some of Harvard’s many violations.
But Harvard—and American academia—wasn’t always this way.
In 1998, before I started studies for my PhD at Harvard, I spent nearly a year doing field research in Uganda on the behavior of chimpanzees. In retrospect, this work turned out to be useful in understanding dominance hierarchies at the school.
After earning my PhD in 2004, I was fortunate enough to get an appointment as a lecturer in my department, Human Evolutionary Biology (HEB). This allowed me to indulge two of my passions: teaching undergraduates, and behavioral endocrinology—the study of connections between hormones and behavior.
I ended up in the unusual position of not being tenured faculty (so, relatively low in the Harvard hierarchy), but having a contract that ran indefinitely. This was possible because I also had an administrative job as the co-director of undergraduate studies in HEB. I won many awards for teaching and advising, was repeatedly voted one of the graduating seniors’ “Favorite Professors,” and my Hormones and Behavior class was named one of The Harvard Crimson’s “top ten tried and true.”
In 2019, I took an unpaid year off to write my book, T: The Story of Testosterone, the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us. It received excellent reviews from the popular press and academic journals.
At the end of July 2021, I made my first live TV appearance, on the Fox and Friends show on Fox News. I was invited to comment on an article in The Free Press by Katie Herzog, in which I’d been quoted. She reported that medical school professors were backing away from using clear scientific terms such as male, female, and pregnant woman, largely in response to student complaints. I said I thought this trend was a big mistake.
In the brief segment on Fox, my troubles began when I described how biologists define male and female, and argued that these are invaluable terms that science educators in particular should not relinquish in response to pressure from ideologues. I emphasized that “understanding the facts about biology doesn’t prevent us from treating people with respect.” We can, I said, “respect their gender identities and use their preferred pronouns.”
I also mentioned that educators are increasingly self-censoring, for fear that using the “wrong” language can result in being shunned or even fired.
Some of this censorship comes as a result of the growing DEI complex that has a strong foothold in so many institutions. At Harvard, there are “central” DEI offices run by professional staff, headed up by the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer (CDIO), whose mission is to create “a campus climate that is welcoming, inclusive, respectful, and free from bias and harassment.” There are also many departmental DEI “committees” or “task forces” that are typically staffed by faculty, staff, and grad students.
These committees have a profound influence on department culture, and on matters ranging from who should give a talk, what is taught, and even who is hired. All this reaches into daily academic life and gives enormous power to graduate students.
The director of our task force was a graduate student; I’ll just use her first name, Laura. Shortly after my appearance on Fox, I learned of a tweet from her that read, “As the Director of the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force for my dept @HarvardHEB, I am appalled and frustrated by the transphobic and harmful remarks made by a member of my dept in this interview with Fox and Friends.” Attached to the tweet was a clip of my Fox and Friends appearance.
I was shocked and distressed to see this public attack on my character, especially from someone representing herself as speaking on behalf of the university and my department. In response, I quote-tweeted her tweet: “I appreciate your concerns. Could you let me (and the Twitterverse) know exactly what I said that you consider transphobic or harmful to undergrads? I think you know that I care deeply about all of my students, and I also care about science. How about a discussion? @HarvardHEB.”
My quote-tweet brought a lot of attention to her original tweet, mostly in support of me, including from people with large platforms like journalist Glenn Greenwald. Laura also received supportive tweets, some that attacked me.
Looking back, I can see how naive and unprepared I was for what followed.
Our Twitter interaction received media coverage not only from within Harvard, but in international news outlets such as the Daily Mail, the New York Post, and The Australian, often with clickbait headlines: “Harvard professor who refuses to use the term ‘pregnant people’ and insists on ‘woman’ is accused of transphobia by her woke Ivy League colleague.” (I had said nothing about these terms.) Current and previous members of my department publicly accused me on social media of intentionally harming Laura, “punching down,” and threatening the safety of the “community,” particularly undergraduates.
Then an article appeared in The Harvard Crimson about the imbroglio. In it, Laura told the paper, “I also want to reiterate that I respect Carole as both a scientist and valuable member of our department.” When asked for comment, I said, “We can be caring and sensitive to the needs and identities of everyone, while also sticking to biological reality.”
But the article also linked to a “Statement of Harvard Graduate Student Union Members in Solidarity With Laura [L.]” It claimed that Laura had suffered a “multi-day deluge of personal harassment, racist abuse, and threats of physical harm after her response was amplified by [Hooven].” But my department administrators told me they could not publicly support me because the “optics” of the situation prevented it.
Over the next few weeks, things quieted down, and my fears that my reputation was permanently damaged began to abate. Then I got an email, forwarded to me by a faculty friend in another department. It was sent by the department chair (who was on that department’s Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging committee). When I read the first few lines, I knew my troubles were far from over: the department’s “Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Committee wants to express our unwavering support for transgender individuals, in our community and everywhere. . . . We would like to share with you the following commentary from a member of our community on the topic of this week’s public lecture.”
The “commentary” was a complaint from a graduate student (who happened to be a transgender woman on their DIB committee), objecting to the fact that the department had advertised a talk I was to give on campus discussing my book.
The student wrote: “Carole Hooven, one of the speakers, has had some history of speaking against the interests of transgender and gender diverse people—including a notable recent interview in Fox News. . . . It is hard to imagine how these sorts of comments are supposed to foster a respectful, academic dialogue around transgender identities and experiences.”
The complaint then went on to list my other “offenses,” based on quotes taken out of context from podcasts and newspaper articles. It ended with a notice that there would be a “brave space for discussion” after the talk.
While campus community members are entitled to publicly disagree with each other, university administrators (or those representing themselves as administrators) should not publicly disparage the character of those with whom they disagree; doing so damages reputations and inhibits free expression on campus. I knew that this was not going to blow over unless those in charge in my own department, or perhaps the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences—Claudine Gay—spoke out on my behalf. Not to weigh in on the accuracy of my statements, but to strongly defend my right to make them and to reiterate the collegial norms of campus discourse.
So I was happy to see an email to me from the Dean of Science, offering to meet. He wrote that he was sad about my “turmoil,” and that he wanted to explore how we could “foster a climate of collegial intellectual discussion.” I should have read the email more carefully. He spoke only about establishing new task forces and initiatives. I eventually interrupted to ask about what he was going to do to address my situation. In response I got a stern lecture on not interrupting. That felt like the end of the line.
But my hopes were again raised when an administrator shared a draft of an email that included this robust defense (and a reference to my place in the Harvard hierarchy): “[The complaint letter] made serious accusations against a much beloved and respected staff member and lecturer in my department, Dr. Carole Hooven. . . the person hurt by this was not some renowned professor, protected by academic tenure.”
I wrote back: “To have you standing up for me and seriously, standing up for science, means the world to me and helped me feel more secure and supported in the work I do for the department and for Harvard. . . . This insane narrative of my work is being created that has no basis in reality and it is being perpetuated by university administration. And this is appalling. Your strong support means the world to me.”
In the end, however, that email absolving me of any wrongdoing was not sent. Another was sent instead. I’d also seen a draft of that one (written by a committee of at least five administrators including a DEI dean, and co-signed by two of them), and pleaded against it ever being sent.
It contained sentences such as: “It was not the intent of our DIB Committee to cause damage to Dr. Hooven’s reputation, but to raise important issues about best practices in science communication and respect for the serious impact our scientific opinions may have on others. We apologize.” As an apology, it failed. The clear implication, now broadcast to hundreds of people in my own and the other department, was that I had failed to respect the “serious impact” of my “scientific opinions.” It was the opposite of what I’d hoped for.
I just wanted to disappear—and that’s pretty much what I did. When I asked the faculty member with whom I worked most closely (also a good friend) for help, explaining that I was concerned about my mental health, he told me to “put your head down, grit your teeth, and be professional.” I got the message that I was to just drop it and move on. I did not, and I lost my old friend.
Eventually I was diagnosed with severe major depression, which included intrusive, persistent, and unwanted suicidal thoughts. I began seeing a therapist and was prescribed medication.
I had someone take over my administrative job, and reduced my employment to half-time. This would enable me to continue teaching my beloved Hormones and Behavior course. But for the first time ever, in the spring of 2022, no graduate students would agree to serve as teaching fellows for my course (which typically had 60–90 students). And without a high-status position, and a research lab and grad students of my own, there wasn’t anything I could do about it.
So instead, the last class I taught at Harvard (or anywhere) was a small undergraduate seminar. It was a great success, and received the highest possible course evaluation score from the students.
As of January 2023, although I assumed I’d remain in my job until some ripe old age (I’m 57), I retired from Harvard. When I made it clear to the powers that be in my department that I felt I had no choice but to leave due to the lack of public support, nobody stepped up to provide it. People were behaving in ways that were invited by the culture of DEI. (This was particularly true of Laura, the graduate student immersed in that culture, and I do not blame her.) Even if they knew the right thing to do, especially for those at the top, there was just too much to lose.
A few brave, compassionate faculty members reached out with support, and I’m indebted to them. I am especially thankful to psychology professor Steven Pinker, who has made it possible for me to have an (unpaid) associate position in his department. And my case was an impetus for the formation of the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard. Our focus is to promote “free inquiry, intellectual diversity, and civil discourse at America’s oldest university.” I’m an active member.
As a sign of the political polarization that characterizes the U.S. today, my supporters have tended to come from the right—although I am a lifelong Democrat. I was happy to accept a position as a senior fellow at the center-right American Enterprise Institute, where lively debate reigns.
The Harvard motto is Veritas—truth. But the truth is that the message that members of the Harvard community receive every day—in emails, trainings, posters, pamphlets, and meetings—concerns DEI. The message is that what matters most, certainly above the search for truth, is how people’s words affect groups deemed “marginalized.”
I care about ensuring that everyone feels welcome at Harvard, and believe that diversity on campus strengthens the institution. But this must not come at a cost to free speech. Harvard has a long way to go to restore an environment where those on its campus feel free to teach, write, and speak without fear. Such a culture supports knowledge production, dissemination, and preservation—the true mission of the university.
Follow Carole Hooven on X (formerly Twitter) @hoovlet.
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