Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Was Pusey Wrong to Criticize Joe McCarthy?

I continue to hear from people I respect that the Harvard president should never criticize a professor publicly. I also hear from a great many more people I respect that she should, under the circumstances at hand.

One reasonable argument I am hearing in response to my previous post is that what Minow said to the law student was wrong, so my use of this example to justify my argument that Faust should speak up is poorly grounded. I happen to agree that Minow was wrong, so the real point of this example was to put the Harvard actual-practice double standard out for scrutiny.

Let me try another example. When Senator Joseph McCarthy attacked Harvard and other universities for being Communist havens, President Pusey said, "Someday I am sure that we shall all look back on the hateful irrationality of the present with incredulity." Was he wrong to say that? After all, it's a slippery slope, isn't it? How would a Harvard president know where to stop, once he had started criticizing U.S. Senators?

It seems to me there are four possibilities.
  1. Pusey was wrong to go down this path.
  2. Pusey was right and Faust should also say something under the present circumstances.
  3. Pusey was right but Faust should remain silent about Porter and Libya because that's not as bad as what McCarthy was saying.
  4. Pusey was right but Faust should remain silent because it's OK for a Harvard president to criticize a senator but not a Harvard professor.
Both (2) and (3) at least establish that Harvard presidents can sometimes make public moral judgments. (4) is logically consistent but I just don't get it--it seems to suggest that the people who have the most protection from criticism are those who need it the least. If you believe (1), we just have an honest disagreement.

The saying goes, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." The two halves of the sentence can coexist.


  1. I have read most of your posts on the subject and I thinks that the answer is as obvious to you as it is to most: the President and the Professors should all be on the side of the Truth.

  2. Well, I love playing Devil's advocate, so here goes...

    Given what seems to be the sensitive nature of most Americans these days, wouldn't a public comment from the president of Harvard constitute a public whipping these days? And if professors do indeed report directly to the president, then should someone's boss be publicly whipping you when you cross some line?

    Oh. Wait. The answer there is, "Yes!"

    Perhaps the president passes for legal reasons. Wouldn't want to get Harvard embroiled in some slander or aggrieved worker law suit...

    Finally, why isn't it good enough for deans and other faculty to make a statement of their own? You guys seem to have done a good job on Larry Summers. You're not alone on this among the faculty I hope...

  3. I doubt there is any fear of litigation. You are correct, however, that people are sensitive. That is absurd; we are talking about tenured faculty, who have no fear of being fired for what they say. That makes it easier, not harder, to criticize what they say. There is an understandable and correct aversion to political issues, and many who would love to Harvard pick sides in their partisan or nationalistic dispute. But this is a coin with, as far as I can see, only one side. And yes, I think Harvard as an institution should stand for things like human freedom and self-determination, and in other contexts we show we do. I am puzzled that people think the president should be disempowered from expressing her regret when a member of the community works against those values and there is a lot of public discussion of it but the university sits resolutely mute.

  4. Sarcasm can be fun, but doesn't always communicate well. I really do think President Faust could do Harvard a bit of good by speaking her mind on this. But if she won't lead, then let the faculty pick up the baton and make their own statement. In some ways, I think that would be more powerful.

  5. What if an UNtenured prof got money from Libya for saying it was a democracy? Then should the President get involved? I ask nonrhetorically.

  6. Well, if you were a political science professor that should lose you the tenure vote, unless you provided some scholarly documentation. If you were a business school professor on a consulting gig, as Porter was, I shouldn't think it should make any difference to what the university thinks, if we allow that the university CAN think. A lot of what I have been hearing from the Drew-was-right folks is that it is actually impossible for the university to have an opinion about anything. Which as I have said seems to me inconsistent with the fact that we support human rights abroad in a variety of institutional ways, which we wouldn't do if Harvard did not think it was better for people to have rights than not to have them.

    So yes, if you were an assistant professor and said something that disgraced the university, I think the president should not hesitate to act embarrassed on the part of the university. But the Porter case is easier, I acknowledge -- all the gauges are at their extreme: Tenured professor, highest academic rank, boatload of money involved, Libya=democracy. The fact that you could have more arguments if you tweaked any of those variables off their extrema doesn't change the case at hand.