Recently College Guide wrote about the bizarre case of the University of Arizona, which used to require that students be nice, and then recently gave up on the practice once the school realized that such a requirement was actually unconstitutional.

Harvard was apparently on the verge of demanding, or strongly pushing, something rather similar. According to a piece by Peter Finocchiaro at Ivy Gate:

Last week, we learned about a new initiative at Harvard, one in which entering freshman were encouraged to sign a pledge of kindness toward other members of the community. Which sounds lovely, and all. The problem, though, was that administrators — in their plans to hang the signed documents in dorm entryways, for all to see — weren’t so much encouraging new students as they were tacitly pressuring them to participate.

And so Harvard backed down. Dean of Freshman Tom Dingman sent an email out to freshman yesterday explaining that they were changing the policy; the kindness pledge didn’t really work out as planned:

In order to give you an active role and not just appear to be talking at you, we invited you to sign the pledge. And, we printed your names at the bottom of the document to insure some orderliness with the voluntary collection of signatures. As with any first-time endeavor, we overlooked several things: your possibly feeling some pressure to sign given your newness in the community and the fact that this was introduced by your proctor, the closest authority figure to you; and the fact that the printed names would make it clearer who had chosen not to participate resulting in a conspicuous blank space.

And so the names are coming down.

Technically, as a private institution, Harvard students arguably have no protections under the First Amendment allowing them to be jerks.

No, it appears Harvard got rid of its niceness pledge merely because such pledges go against the institution’s history. As former Harvard College Dean Harry Lewis writes

Harvard has a deep and ancient antipathy to pledges and oaths. The Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison, writing on pages 339-341 of The Founding of Harvard College, describes how remarkable it was that Harvard did not, in any of its founding documents, follow the practice of its British ancestors in requiring a religious oath of its students. “Our founders knew from their English experience,” Morrison writes, “that oaths are powerless to bind conscience. … Accordingly this academic vessel was provided with the barest possible code of statutes, and her master and crew, unhampered by oaths and religious tests, were left to exercise their best judgment, as God gave it to them.”

In more recent history, President Pusey raised his voice in 1959 to object to US legislation that would have demanded that certain scholarship recipients swear to uphold the Constitution. Loyalty oaths, even ones affirming unexceptionable principles, are, as Pusey put it, “odious.”

Harvard will continue to display the pledge (above) in the dormitories, though not the signatures of students.

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Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer