Tuesday, April 12, 2011

In that case, students should get immunity too

The Crimson quotes two professors on the question of whether President Faust should remain mute on Professor Porter's work for the Libyan government and his characterization of that state as a democracy. Stanley Hoffman doubts that the president should "whip him in public." Jeffrey Miron thinks that "if the president started taking a stand on faculty activities or positions, there would be an endless series of issues to address." I have no quarrel with Professor Hoffman. I never asked for any punishment, even figurative punishment, of Professor Porter, and in particular no "scolding" or "whipping." I could care less what President Faust does or says to Professor Porter. It's Harvard I care about, and the reputation of all of the rest of us who are part of the University.

But I think the notion that the President couldn't stop being critical, once she got started, is wrong. In another post I have already addressed the notions (a) that there is absolutely nothing a Harvard professor could say that would earn the slightest expression of regret from the University, and (b) that because gray exists one can never call black what it is. Yes, criticizing professors requires judgment and good taste and an ability to draw reasoned distinctions--and a willingness to defend yourself if you make a questionable judgment about whom to criticize for what. Do we think our leaders lack that kind of discretion?

In fairness to Professor Miron, he's right--at least that Porter might not be the only one who could come in for criticism. Indeed, the first that might have to be addressed is his economist colleague Professor Shleifer, whom I mentioned in my question, about whom the University has also remained resolutely silent. In fact, the President may well be following the Shleifer precedent. 
And the President surely wants to avoid having the University dragged into politics, with lame faculty debates on whether the US should withdraw from Iraq or back the Palestinians, etc. But that sort of debate and posturing was always silly--those are not Harvard issues.

What might be nice is for the president, or somebody else who speaks for Harvard, to say that Harvard stands for democracy rather than tyranny, and that they are two different things. She might say, for example, that Professor Porter's description of the Gaddafi government as a democracy "does not reflect the views of the school or the overwhelming majority of the members of this community."

Of course, President Faust would first have to seek copyright clearance from Dean Minow to use that particular phrase, since that is the language with which Minow publicly scolded, or whipped as you prefer, a first-year law student for stating, in a private email to a few fellow students, that she did not "rule out the possibility that African Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent." Dean Minow said that her public statement was needed to underscore the Law School's devotion to "intellectual inquiry and social justice." Let's stipulate that this public statement was appropriate. Why wouldn't what applied to the law student apply equally to Professor Porter? I can think of several possibilities, none very palatable.
  • Deans do this sort of thing but Presidents don't, even to University Professors, who report directly to the President. No Harvard official can say anything critical of a such a Harvard high priest; scoldings are for the little people.
  • Students have less immunity from criticism for what they say than Professors, or at least University Professors.
  • Whether Libya is a democracy or a dictatorship is not a social justice issue in Harvard's use of that term, in spite of our having a Human Rights Committee, a Human Rights Project, a Human Rights Program or two, and so on. We like these things when we are fighting for them abroad; but we would never suggest that one of our own was undermining human rights.
As I have said several times, I have no per se objection to Professor Porter working in Libya, and I have no reason to doubt that the country had great economic opportunities which Professor Porter's advice, had it been taken, might have led to prosperity there. I simply have a particular affection for that word "democracy," and the thing that embarrasses me is the twenty-two uses of that word and its cognates in Professor Porter's slide deck, as describing not just the future promise but the actual status in 2006, at the time of the report. I imagine I got this fondness for "democracy" from my father, who fought for ours, and from my mother, whose parents crossed the Atlantic so their children could grow up in it. I attended a college that actually had the words "Free Society" in the name of its signature curriculum (in which my respected colleague Professor Hoffman taught). I miss that old place, so unapologetically devoted to human freedom. And I regret that we professors trust our leaders so little to use their voices wisely, that we would rather have them say nothing at all than to suggest that Harvard stands for democracy over tyranny.

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