What do you think about Harvard’s “kindness pledge”?

Joshua Rothman, blogging for the Boston Globe (registration may be required), writes about a “kindness pledge” that Harvard University is asking all entering first-year students to sign:

The pledge requires students to “act with integrity, respect, and industry, and to sustain a community characterized by inclusiveness and civility.” “As we begin at Harvard,” it continues, “we commit to upholding the values of the College and to making the entryway and Yard a place where all can thrive and where the exercise of kindness holds a place on par with intellectual attainment.”


Those who have followed the anti-bullying theme of this blog may think I’d be in favor of such a pledge, but actually, I find it troubling.

I believe we do need laws and policies to establish boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. But aspirational pledges drafted by an organization give rise to hard questions of interpretation and even dicier issues of possible enforcement or discipline.

Defining terms such as “integrity, respect, and industry” and “inclusiveness and civility” is difficult, subjective business. Accusations that someone has “violated” the pledge are almost sure to follow, and subsequent events may lead to more bad feelings.


I’d prefer that there be strong lines drawn on abusive behaviors such as bullying, harassment, and stalking, combined with efforts by university leadership to create an organizational culture that embraces respect, inclusiveness, and civility.

No wonder folks at Harvard are vigorously debating this pledge! At the very least, if incoming students are feeling pressured to sign it, I hope their professors and senior administrators have agreed to sign and be subject to it as well.

2 responses

  1. Seems to me that a “kindness pledge” is analgous to the “respectful workplace” policies that have become common in Canada. A nod in the general direction of psychological violence and harassment, but toothless, vague, and for practical purposes unenforceable. It also deflects the onus of the organizational culture from the administrators and senior managers…probably the real intent behind such measures (as avoiding accountability seems to have become a popular pastime)!

  2. I agree with Kachina. I worked for a company that made a big deal out of their code of ethics and behavior until it came down to actually enforcing them. Of course if an issue happened to be in the public eye then they were all over it. Public relations used to be called propaganda until the Nazis gave it a bad name.

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