Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A dangerous precedent

The Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences voted yesterday to approve the Summer School catalog. Ordinarily this vote, and the comparable vote on the annual catalog, are pro forma. I don't ever remember a discussion of such a motion, much less a challenge.

But yesterday the motion to approve the catalog was amended to exclude the courses of one Subramanian Swamy, an economist. Swamy taught in the Summer School this past summer, and had caused a controversy, not for anything he did in his classes, but for an opinion piece published in India, entitled "How to wipe out Islamic terror."

At this point it would be fair to point you to the article. Alas, it seems to have been removed from the Web by the original publisher. You can find a version posted on a different site, but I can't vouch for its accuracy. In brief, the article argues for Hindu nationalism as a response to Muslim terrorism--nationalism enforced by removing mosques, banning conversion from Hinduism, annexing Bangladeshi territory, and so on. The article caused a furor when it was originally published, and the furor spread to the US because Swamy was teaching in Summer School at Harvard. Now the Economics Department proposed to have him teach here again next summer. He is a PhD from the department, and hence known to some of its members. There were no complaints about his teaching last summer (though there were complaints about his being at Harvard at all, given the article).

The amendment carried and the catalog was approved. Swamy will not be professing at Harvard next summer.

I think this is not a simple matter. I participated in the discussion in the Faculty Council, which approved the catalog, unamended, unanimously. A prior commitment kept me from the FAS meeting so I am blogging without the benefit of hearing the arguments of the amenders, which apparently swayed some of the Council members who had originally voted in favor of the unamended catalog.

1. I set an extremely high value on free speech in the university, perhaps higher than any other value. The article is not an immediate incitement to violence. It has been dubbed "hate speech" but I find that a discomfiting term. Even if it is hate speech, it is Constitutionally protected speech. So in any controversy like this, my starting position is that the way to fight words you don't like is with more words, not with actions.
2. On the other hand, Swamy is not a member of the community. He was last summer, and the Department of Economics was proposing that he become a visiting professor again next summer. Harvard does not owe him a job, on free speech grounds or any other. Depriving him of the opportunity to speak by not hiring him is not an offense to his right to free speech.
3. I believe that professors are more than lecturers. We want them to be advisors, and whether it is in the job description or not, they are role models. So I think character is a rational hiring criterion for someone being brought into an instructional role. And I think it is fair to weigh people's non-academic words when judging their character. (I am well aware that this point, in particular, is arguable.)
4. On the other hand, there is little evidence that Harvard actually cares about the character of its professors. We have had scoundrels on the Faculty and never raised our voices against them. So to use that argument against Swamy seems entirely inconsistent with past practice and ad hominem. In any case a Summer School professor is unlikely to be a personal mentor to his students. The argument against Swamy is not his character but his words.
5. I was surprised at first that the motion to amend was in order, though thinking about it there is no reason why it shouldn't have been. But think of the precedent it sets. If you want to silence a colleague--even a tenured member of some department other than your own--just get 51% of the Faculty on your side and show up on the day the catalog is due for its sleepy annual vote of approval. And not 51% of the Faculty--51% of the small minority (perhaps a quarter to a third) that shows up. The opportunities for mischief are thrilling to consider. Impatient with the institutional response to the offenses of Marc Hauser? Don't hope for some administrative settlement--just vote him out of the catalog!
6. A professor I chatted with today asked me if our colleagues had forgotten what happened in the 1950s. This fellow was not himself old enough to remember--but he knew, as my colleagues seemed not to, that once you embrace advance screening of speech as a valid tool for safeguarding community norms, you instead impoverish the community, and you equip your opponents with a tool that will eventually be used against you. Find some other way to express your outrage at the speaker, other than shutting him up.

So had I been there, I would have voted against the amendment. Swamy's being on campus could have a teachable moment for discussion of religious pluralism, better than any pieties pronounced in the absence of primary data. The occasion could have taught our students an important lesson about how to deal with words they don't like. Swamy, as far as I can see, has never been caught with a Molotov cocktail in hand, or ripping stones from the foundation of any mosque. His words should have been fought with words. There is no evidence that he would have been a danger to anyone--and he surely is not the danger that the Harvard Faculty showed it to be to itself. We weakened ourselves through our ill-conceived effort to brandish our values.

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