The Faculty Speaks
What can Harvard University do about South Africa? Read President Bok's open letters on the subject. Though written for a particular occasion, these letters rise above it because they contain the most thoughtful statement of a university's relationship with society which has appeared in America in the last decade.
Their central idea is the truth that a university has a "special mission" in the discovery and transmission of knowledge. A "special mission" is not a specialized function, one among others, as if a university were like a business corporation or a labor union. It is a mission special to itself to challenge the assumptions of our daily routine, including the assumptions that make possible specializations in society and even in the university. To challenge is to rethink, and rethinking requires mastery of the traditions of thought.
In his open letter, President Bok challenged the assumptions of the divestiture movement and then proceeded to pick its arguments to pieces. While restating the central idea of a university he gave a masterly example of that idea in operation.
Now and again a university president must be a professor, or be at the mercy of professors.
Having read President Bok's letters, people should then look at the behavior and the goal of the divestiture movement. They will find both deserving of criticism.
The end is to unsettle racist tyranny in South Africa. But what of class tyranny in Communist countries which does not merely put its victims in apartheid but imprisons, tortures and kills them? Why is one denounced but not the other? This lopsided morality is open to the charge levelled by Sozhenitsyn at the 1978 Harvard Commencement that we apply our morality only to those whom we believe to be weak.
Not that the behavior of students demanding divestiture has been so impressive. Some of them have shown, by chanting beautifully rhymed slogans, how moronic solidarity can be created among people with high SAT scores. But few or none have taken on the difficult task of persuading their fellow citizens or even their own elected representatives. Instead of persuading, the divestiture movement has tried to exert pressure through demonstrations, boycotts and threats against the university, which is nearby and won't bite back.
May Harvard's good nature long continue. Its good sense has been powerfully revived by President Bok.