Tuesday, April 19, 2011

My Hong Kong Lectures Published

Chameleon Press in Hong Kong has published in book form the four major lectures I delivered during my January visit.

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.

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.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Emily Rooney Radio (not TV) Show

I made a brief appearance on the Emily Rooney Radio Show at noon today, April 11, to talk about the Harvard and Libya business. I was confused by the title of the person who contacted me and did not realize until I arrived at WGBH that it was a radio appearance. In any case, here is a link to the show.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Saturday, April 9, 2011

More on Harvard and Libya

Business Week picks up the controversy and puts it in perspective, and quotes my question.
I expect to appear on Emily Rooney's Boston Common on Monday, April 11 (Channel 2 in Boston, 7pm). This will be my fourth or fifth appearance on this show, I think, starting back a decade ago when she did a short segment on students running businesses out of their dorm rooms.

See above for update.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Reactions to My Comments at the Faculty Meeting

I have gotten many messages today (I was ushering at Prof. Gomes' service this morning, I apologize to those of you I have been unable to acknowledge). Most people have been generous and supportive. The issue was reported in the Boston Globe and I did brief interviews on WBUR and WBZ radio this morning. I did want to add a few comments on things that have been noted or implied in the email messages and elsewhere.

Zeroth, for heaven's sake, this is about Michael Porter, not Roger Porter!! Several people seem to have misunderstood that.

First of all, here is a link to the slide deck prepared by Monitor for the Libyan government. Though I found this deck only after reading some of the press reporting on this issue, my entire presentation and question is based entirely on reading this one document.

Second, I do not think it was automatically wrong to consult for the Libyan government. If a doctor at the School of Public Health had been asked to report on polio eradication there, that surely would not have been wrong, however bloody the money that paid her.

Third, I am not satisfied with the defense that as soon as Professor Porter knew the reformers were not going to prevail, he pulled out. I am glad he did, but that is not the point. I would not suggest that reforms were impossible or that the economic rebirth of Libya could not have happened; all that part of the report may have been 100% true. My objections are entirely to the claims, repeated several times in the deck and unsupported by any evidence of which I am aware, that Libya was a democracy in 2006. To have a Harvard expert say that inevitably carries the reputation of the university with it.

Fourth, I am told other Harvard professors were involved; why am I not going after them? Because I don't know that to be the case (I am not an investigative journalist, just a professor to responding to a text in front of me), and because Professor Porter's name is on the deck.

Fifth, having read the version of the president's remarks reported in the Globe to be sure I understood what she was saying, I believe she is answering affirmatively to the second part of my question, and I am grateful for that response.

Sixth, it has been suggested that the President could not start criticizing faculty because there would be no end to it, and it would be hard to decide where to stop. Here we have an honest difference of opinion, perhaps, about agreed-on facts. It seems to proceed from the premise that universities need to operate according to rules, not judgments, so we may need a new rule to cover this situation, but without that all the flowers and skunkweeds must be allowed to bloom equally.

I simply do not accept that. I think university leaders make judgments all the time; when to criticize a professor is just one more. Shall we have a Center for the Environment, or Center for Climate Change Skepticism? And so on. If the Libya situation is not sufficiently black, how about this hypothetical. I set up a private institute off campus devoted to denying the Holocaust. I have a web site proving that the photos of the gas chambers were photoshopped. People pay me money to give speeches here and abroad. I brandish my Harvard title everywhere I go. Does anyone seriously think that the Harvard president could only say "I will defend to the death your right to say it" and could never suggest the slightest regret that I was saying it?

Of course that is an extreme hypothetical, bit if agreed to, it refutes the absolute contention that Harvard could never say anything critical of a professor. The fact that a spectrum has shades of gray doesn't mean you could never be anywhere on the spectrum at all.

Finally, I was not suggesting that the president make a special speech or press release on this. Far better, whenever this first came to public light in the newspapers, the next time she was giving a speech about how wonderful Harvard is, she could have slipped in a parenthetical expression of embarrassment on behalf of the university about the involvement of Professor Porter in the Libya mess. Humility always winds you points, so this could have even been a good strategic move. Anyway, isn't acknowledging sin what we are all supposed to do during Lent?

Added later: There seems to be a continuing confusion about academic freedom/the right to free speech on the one hand, and some imagined right to speak without having the president criticize you. I seriously don't get this. It in fact would be the DEATH of academic freedom if speakers were immune from criticism for the things they say. The answer to the president abusing her power to criticize a professor is, of course, for the professors to criticize the president. It's been done. We all have the right to speak freely. We just have to expect some pushback when we say things that are unworthy of Harvard professors, such as that Muammar Gaddafi was, in 2006, the leader of a successful democracy. Why is this so difficult?

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.