A Matter of Conscience
What is the price-currant of an honest man and patriot today? They hesitate and they regret, and sometimes they petition; but they do nothing in earnest and with effect. They will wait, well disposed, for others to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have it to regret. At most, they will give only a cheap vote, and a feeble countenance and Godspeed, to the right, as it goes by them...
It is not a man's duty, as a matter of conscience, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support...
Action from principle--the perception and the performance of right--changes things and relations...it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once well done is done for ever. Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience
IN HIS LETTERS on the ethical responsibilities of the university in society, President Bok has maintained that, as an investor, a consumer and a recipient of donations, Harvard should generally refrain from acting on moral grounds because such action would be ineffective in achieving its ends and costly to the University. But acts of conscience have never promised success without a price. No one would contend that by selling its South African holdings, Harvard alone could end apartheid or force corporate withdrawal from South Africa--the University simply does not control a large enough share of the stock of any single corporation. Nor would anyone pretend that a Harvard boycott of the Nestle Corporation would force Nestle to stop selling its deadly products to mothers in the Third World. It is not Harvard's moral obligation to end apartheid or save the people victimized by Nestle; it is Harvard's moral obligation to terminate its material support of the institutions that sustain those wrongs.
At an open meeting with students this April, Bok discussed how decisions are made at Harvard. Universities, he said, are not "hierarchical like armies. Power is shared widely by varying groups." He did not, however, mention the unchecked power of the Harvard Corporation--which he heads--to invest the University's endowment and to set purchasing and fundraising policies. Bok and the Corporation have been careful not to share their power on these issues despite vigorous and widespread faculty and student sentiment. He gave a clue to the reason for this autocratic stance in his second letter when he wrote that Harvard "will command much less respect if it takes political stands on matters unrelated to education, especially among businessmen who regard these stands as the product of student protest and campus unrest."
It seems that Bok is more worried about alienating businessmen than about honoring the sensibilities of the academic community. He may protest that the opinions expressed in his letters "are not the official views of the University," but as head of the Corporation, he has effectively told the community what the policies will be. Thomas Gould, professor of classics at Yale, observed this same approach to university governance in a different context:
Historically and logically the business of the administration is to take some of the clerical duties off the hands of the faculty; to do whatever is necessary to preseve the university both from financial worries and from intrusions of religious bigotry or political power: and to create a community where excellence of any sort is recognized and encouraged.
In the background of the recent changes there is a vicious metaphor at work according to which a university is like a business: this makes the administration, the management, the faculty, the employees, and the students the customers. The metaphor elevates the administration from their rightful place as servants and protectors of the faculty to the position of their judges and overseers.
In a recent interview, President Bok said he wrote the letters, which "took an enoromous effort on top of everything else," to address the issues the community cares most about because it "deserves to hear the most thoughtful answers that I could give." Implicit in his remark is the assumption that all he owes the Harvard community is an explanation of his actions: we only need listen, he will provide the answers.
Bok first contends that the academic community's intellectual freedom would be endangered if Harvard took institutional stands on ethical questions, thereby establishing an "official doctrine." However, his unwillingness to consider seriously the wishes of the community in shaping University policy makes his solicitude for that same community's intellectual freedom seem hollow. Bok has made a false distinction between free academic expression and free expression about how the University is run. It seems that when the community expresses itself freely about university governance, it is indulging in foolish distractions. Speaking of other universities, and obliquely of Harvard, Bok says that efforts to "use the institution as an instrument to influence political disputes...have weakened universities abroad by distracting their members from teaching and learning.
Bok bases his argument about intellectual freedom on the assumption that the University can avoid moral dilemmas by ignoring them. In his second letter, he quietly admits that it cannot: "When [the University] makes it purchases, it normally chooses the company that can provide the goods and services it needs at the best available price. Granted, such purchases do contribute something to the supplier's profits. But...'" And Bok goes on to rationalize Harvard's failure to include value judgments in making its purchasing decision. But he has acknowledged the crucial point that the University does support the status quo with its money. As Donald Woods points out, "Every dollar invested in South Africa yields tax revenue for the apartheid government to reinforce its police-state apparatus. And every dollar earned by Harvard from investment in South Africa derives from the repression of the black majority there."
Once Bok has admitted that not to decide is to decide, his argument about intellectual freedom loses its basis: the University cannot avoid having an "official doctrine." The question then becomes whose doctrine it will be--the Harvard Corporation's or the community's.
Bok has answered that question with a high-minded contempt for the democratic process. "An institutional statement," he says, "may come about through the weight of faculty resolutions and student petitions that reflect the views of many persons with little time or special competence to judge the issues." But should moral judgments be made by specialists? As citizens of the University community do not the faculty and students have the right and the duty to help make those decisions?
The answer is particularly clear in the case of boycotts. If a majority of students agree to bear the higher cost of a given product, which only they use, then the University should honor their freely-made decision not to contribute their money to an objectionable corporation, whether it sells a product that kills babies or engages in a vicious union-busting.
Bok's second proposition is that decisions made on moral grounds will endanger the independence of the University. This argument, repeated in each of the letters, is a textbook example of circular reasoning. He writes in his first letter:
Although the freedom of the universities is generally recognized today, the memory of enemies lists, loyalty oaths, and anti-subversive campaigns should remind us that our autonomy will always remain precarious and fragile. If we wish to preserve our independence, we should remember that society respects the freedom of academic institutions only because it assumes that they will devote themselves to the academic pursuits for which that freedom was intended.
And he continues this line of thought in his last letter:
If universities claim the right to pressure others to do what they believe is morally right, we must acknowledge that all sorts of organizations and groups may likewise feel impelled to turn the screw in behalf of standards they consider to be important and just.
President Bok is arguing that we should not use our rights in order to protect our rights. The University as an investor has the right to decide which corporations it wants to invest in on any grounds it deems appropriate. And yet, Bok argues that Harvard's decision to divest of its South African holdings would tend "to undermine the willingness of outside groups to respect the academic freedom of the University." Every consumer has the right to decide which products to buy and which not to buy and yet Bok believes that by exercising this right, Harvard will induce outsiders to "turn the screw" on the University.
A University's rights are not limited to its academic pursuits. It should be able to exercise all it rights fearlessly, without worry of outside reprisals.
Bok's last general argument is that moral decisions will cost money that could otherwise have been spent for academic purposes. But President Bok cannot honestly expect moral choices always to be completely painless. The health of this institution depends on much more than its liquidity. Bok rhetorically asks at the conclusion of his last letter "whether much will truly be lost by the reluctance of academic institutions to exert collective pressure." He, of course, does not believe the price of some amorality would be too high. After all, Harvard only contributes a small amount to the profits of these corporations. And what is that compared to the loss of freedom, independence and money the University would suffer? He suggests that Harvard should leave the moral decisions to the government: "We are more likely to achieve a better society by relying on the government to regulate corporate behavior and direct foreign policy than by encouraging private organizations to use their economic power."
Again the words of Thoreau should haunt the President:
It is truly enough said, that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience...Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think we should be men first, and subjects afterwards.
President Bok himself maintains that "the way in which a university addresses these questions and the answers that it gives are inescapably part of the moral education it imparts to students." If what he says is true, then the President's real message to the students of Harvard is that small acts of daring are, at times like this, futile. When he tells us that we are "naive" and "must all be linked in indirect and innumerable ways to the wrongs of the world--through the goods we buy, the taxes we pay, the services we use, the investments we make," he is teaching us to have what Lawrence Goodwyn, professor of history at Duke, called "grace in the face of corruption." Bok has told us that there must be an unavoidable conflict between what we believe and what we do. At the deepest level, our President has counseled despair.