Shunning Responsibility


AT THE TURN of the '80s, Harvard seems a far different place from the University at the turn of the '70s--and, to the superficial glance, a far better one. Students attend to their studies, and nothing short of the threat of war can rouse many to protest. Faculty members teach their courses and research in an atmosphere conducive to serious scholarship, and point to the Core Curriculum as an example of their deep concern for the intellectual lives of undergraduates. Administrators nod approvingly, and as money flows into the well-defended endowment from generous alumni pockets, they jealously guard the academic freedom of their scholars and the freedom from responsibility of their investments. And the football team even manages to beat Yale.

The trains, as the saying goes, are running on time at Harvard these days. But between the lines of the well-ordered schedules, behind the complacency, lie problems as serious as those in the '60s. Some of them are less strikingly visible than their predecessors, but all cry out for solution today, not after they have become acute dangers to the University's day-to-day life. A single thread ties them all together: the University's aversion to public responsibility, whether it be to South Africans and others affected by its investments, to residents of the community it dominates, or to its own students and employees.

Towards students, the University adopts a paternalistic attitude that is at once patronizing and distrustful. Students, we are told, don't stay here long enough even to begin to understand the complexities of the problems the University faces--so the potential fresh perspectives and novel proposals students might offer are lost. Student involvement in making decisions has its own well-oiled machinery, of course, and those who choose to can serve on groups like the Committee on Houses and Undergraduate Life or the Undergraduate Committee on Harvard Shareholder Responsibility (UCHSR). These bodies, impotent to begin with, are tolerated until they propose anything out of the ordinary--like the Committee on Undergraduate Education's proposals on foreign study or UCHSR's proxy recommendations--and then ignored.

This attitude extends even to the area students can be considered most knowledgeable in, academics. If few others will tell the truth about the Core Curriculum (designed with only a mite of reluctantly conceded student input), they will. Anyone who took a Core course this year knows that in methodology, content and design it was no different from the familiar general lecture course. The best valid claim Dean Rosovsky and the Faculty can make for the Core is that it encouraged professors to think a bit about their undergraduate courses, and a few even concocted new ones. That it took as massively orchestrated a public-relations effort as the Core to arouse them is the most damning thought of all.

THE UNIVERSITY SEEMS to view its responsibilities to minority groups within its borders--which at Harvard right now include women--with an "as little as possible, as late as possible" approach, listening to student complaints and taking action only when constant public pressure makes further passivity impossible. The Faculty's record in tenuring both minority and female professors remains appalling. Radcliffe's decision this year to eliminate the Radcliffe Forum, ostensibly for budgetary reasons, removed with a single stroke one of the few visible institutions on campus devoted entirely to women's needs.

The mammoth report on race relations issued this spring brought into the spotlight many of the racial problems that continue to trouble Harvard, though its release during Reading Period prevented much student discussion about it. We hope its findings and recommendations will make their way into University practice, and not yellow in administrative files. Most important, the University cannot remain supine in the face of its vestiges of racism and sexism, and wait until student anger forces it to act.

The University shuns its responsibilities to the city of Cambridge as well, buying property left and right with little concern for the problems it creates for local residents beyond the most perfunctory public statements. In the Medical Area, it has built a $200 million power plant with little regard for the environmental havoc it might cause in nearby residential areas, and fought desperately against efforts to make the plant's operation cleaner. Harvard acts as though it exists in a vacuum, and pays no attention to the repercussions of its actions in Cambridge. Today the city is powerless to do much beyond draping City Hall in purple bunting to mourn its problems; but if the day should come when it can act against the University--and it may be approaching--the city may respond to its years of ill treatment with disregard for Harvard's needs in return.

ON THE HIGHEST LEVEL, the University in the past three years has waged a vigorous offensive against the notion that its actions can or should have any moral value. President Bok's series of open letters--which deserve praise for presenting the University position at length and in public, but not for muddling many of the issues--spearheaded the drive, and successfully headed off burgeoning movements of student protest. This spring Harvard picked the fruits of that conclusion to "the South African question," as the Corporation summarily rejected the most moderately active recommendations of the already moderate Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility. The curtain over the "case-by-case" approach to shareholder questions lifted to reveal a policy of naked resistance to any effort aimed at using the power of Harvard's investments against apartheid.

In a more vocal controversy this spring, the University showed the hypocrisy of its appointment policies. Bok nominated efficiency-oriented Chicago economist Arnold C. Harberger to head the Harvard Institute for International Development (HIID) without consulting the HIID Faculty Council--or considering that it might be wrong for a professor whose policies enacted in Chile caused starvation and misery to lead an institution that advises foreign governments.

The Harberger case was not a matter of academic freedom, as Bok argued in his final open letter, but a political controversy over an undeniably political appointment. And even if Bok's argument that he needs to defend conservative appointments today so he can defend Marxists against the Joseph McCarthys of the future were valid, the scarcity of Marxists at Harvard to begin with makes this a moot point. And the decision not to offer the respected Afro-Am scholar Eugene D. Genovese a professorship because of his "controversial"--read Marxist--background makes it a laughable point.

The University could easily pass the decades as it passed the last one, ducking issues, pretending that not taking sides keeps its hands clean, ignoring the needs of its undergraduates and devoting its greatest energies towards maintaining its financial stability. This may work right now--but it is not the best approach to running a University: it leaves the facades of Harvard intact while disaffection breeds within. If the University does not take steps, today, towards restoring a sense of responsibility at every level of its operations, it will find itself become a husk of a college, with the walls intact but deadness within.