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?

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