Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Support from unexpected directions

We are known by the company we keep. So I was glad, in the days following the Globe's original reporting on the faculty email issue, when some people I respect were quoted expressing their alarm in terms stronger than I had used. Theda Skocpol, for example, told the Crimson, “Whoever designed this entire cheating scandal in all of its many investigative aspects fits better at the Hoover era FBI than at a modern university." The same Crimson story also quotes Charles Maier, a Harvard venerable. The New York Times quoted economist Oliver Hart, whom I barely know and I don't recall ever being quoted on internal Harvard matters, saying “It’s disturbing because I don’t know what it means about whether they could look at my own e-mail.”

But I am now wondering whether I should continue to be happy to be agreed with. First there was the lead editorial in the St Patrick's day Boston Globe, Harvard was wrong to check email.
The administrators say they were concerned about potential breaches in student confidentiality; but there had been no such breaches in the news leaks. Much more likely, Harvard’s leaders were concerned about their own reputations and that of the university. The search was inappropriate — and out of step with the university’s responsibility to protect free expression.
Well, that goes beyond anything I have said about rationale, but the bottom line is surely right. I agree with the Globe editorials so infrequently, however, that this made me worry a bit. What is happening to me?

And then today there is an op-ed in the Crimson by Sandra Korn, a member of the Occupy movement. In  Harvard’s One Voice, she notes that my "blog posts fall within a field of relative radio silence from Faust and other administrators." In conclusion, she says, "Our administration should learn from this year’s scandals that honesty and internal critique—like that of Harry R. Lewis—is valuable and indeed essential to a healthy university community." Phew! It is not every day that Occupy and I are on the same page. 

I don't actually think the Faculty is done talking about this issue, and I do think it is entirely appropriate for some of the discussion to move off the blogs and news reporting and into the venues where faculty talk directly to each other rather than with the world. And I am hopeful that when the dust settles, those discussions will have restored the climate of trust, about which many History professors in particular have publicly expressed their concern. But Korn is right -- discussions with people you don't usually agree with are productive and enlightening, and far fewer members of the faculty speak up about such things than are worried about them.  One colleague, a tenured professor, sent me a nice supportive note after seeing something I had said, but said s/he would probably not voice that opinion to anyone else out of fear of retribution. Sad but true. So the meta-question Korn raises is perhaps even more important than the issue of email privacy. Next time, what can we all do to encourage open and honest discussion of important issues among members of the Harvard community -- or at least among the faculty?


  1. The Undergraduate Council has been trying for a few years to get agreement from Harvard's administrators on scheduling community "voice" forums for exactly such purpose as you describe. Since there hasn't been receptivity to this being an officially approved phenomenon, discussion has occurred about independently organizing convenings of students from throughout the university, staffers, faculty and any others from our community who might wish to participate. There is often reference to our university's community in commentary about issues, trends, policies, cultural considerations, prioritizing and developments which are of importance to many of us, but what actually exists, within schools and facilities as well as Harvard-wide, are populations significantly balkanized by social groupings, job functions and hierarchies. Much communication which could contribute to the betterment of our collective endeavor takes place in a limited fashion if at all, and for many of us, such community as exists is within our own cohort. So: Less pander, more candor; more caring and sharing - perhaps a way can be found to help Harvard become a model to which other academic communities might aspire.

    1. I understand the impulse, but you're confirming what I thought about strange bedfellows. A meeting where everyone from groundskeepers to freshmen to the President would show up and talk to each other makes better socialist artwork than governance. You would not get more candor that way from the people from whom candor is most needed. Somehow smaller conversations are needed in groups where trust already exists or can be established.

    2. I think there would be very significant value to both approaches. University-wide meetings would not be about governance per se; rather, they would be an opportunity for the diverse stakeholders in what makes this university thrive to have something to say about their experiences, positive or negative, in a setting which one could actually refer to as being about community. It would be up to administrators as to whether and to what extent they might want to be involved and responsive, but I think (and quite a few others with whom I've spoken about this agree) that it would be very much to Harvard's benefit to engage in this way, as there are topics which could be of value to both operational functionality and quality of life here which aren't readily conveyed through the existing, often convoluted or non-continuous channels of communication. So it's not about socialism, but about enhanced communication between community members.

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