Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Michael Porter and Libya

At the FAS meeting this afternoon, April 5, I asked the President the following question.

Madam President,

Harvard rightly expresses its pride when a member of our community does something noble. I wonder if the university should not also express its shame when a faculty member disgraces the university.

In 2006, University Professor Michael Porter, acting as a consultant to a firm he founded, prepared a report for the Libyan government. The report promised that the country was at “the dawn of a new era.” The slides are up on the web site of Harvard’s Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness. They tout Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya as a “popular democracy system” that “supports the bottom-up approach critical to building competitiveness. … Libya has the only functioning example of direct democracy on a national level” with a “meaningful forum for Libyan citizens to participate directly in law-making.” 2006 was not some now-forgotten springtime of Libyan democracy. In the Economist’s democracy index, published a few months later, Libya edged out the likes of Myanmar and North Korea for 161st position, out of 167 nations.

To put it simply, a tyrant wanted a crimson-tinged report that he was running a democracy, and for a price, a Harvard expert obliged in spite of abundant evidence to the contrary. This is not the first time Harvard has been embarrassed by its professors’ moneymaking activities. A few years ago another economist dishonored the university by exploiting his Harvard status for personal profit in Russia; the Harvard name remains malodorous in Moscow, I understand. Students learn what is right and wrong from their professors’ conduct “outside the ivied walls,” as the Gen Ed website describes the rest of the world, and from Harvard’s silent acceptance of their behavior.

I don’t know that Professor Porter broke any laws or university rules, and I would not want any new regulatory apparatus. Yet taking money to support a tyranny by dubbing it a democracy is wrong. Shouldn’t Harvard acknowledge its embarrassment, and might you remind us that when we parlay our status as Harvard professors for personal profit, we can hurt both the university and all of its members?

I don't think I need to gloss it much. I understand why universities should stay out of politics, but Libya seems a pretty apolitical issue. For all I know Porter may be right that there were opportunities for great economic development in Libya. It just seems to me that if Harvard doesn't stand for human liberty and democratic self-governance, it is failing its civic responsibilities.


  1. Are you at liberty to discuss President Faust's response?

  2. I'd actually prefer to see a text before I comment on it in detail.