A Terrible Thing to Waste

DRESS TACKS

THE FULL FACULTY of Arts and Sciences of Harvard University rarely moats anymore, but when it does, the gathering is, to paraphrase John F. Kennedy'40, the greatest assembiage of intellect in a single places since Thomas Jefferson dined alone. They're not all Nobel Laureates, but most are-or will one day be-preeminent scholars in their field. They are, for the most past, informed professors, eager to debase campus and national issues-often on an extremely high philosophical plane--with their colleagues.

The history and recent decline of Faculty meetings at this University makes a fascinating story, in our lifetime alone, Harvard's professors convened several times to thrash out ethical issues relating to the Vietnam War--including how the University should deal with students in trouble for striking classes and otherwise resisting it. Eventually, early in the Nixon Administration, the Faculty put itself on record opposing the war, among the first university faculties in the nation to do so.

Several years later came a heated debate over the University's investments in companies doing business in South Africa. Then, in the late 1970s, came a series of full-scale philosophical discussions of a subject closer to home: the Core Curriculum, Dean Henry Rosovsky's pet project and the first extensive reform of Harvard's undergraduate program in a generation. After the Core won Faculty approval on May 2, 1978, by a vote of 182-65, Class Day Speaker Rodney Dangerfield declared, "Believe me, the Core Curriculum is nothing compared to my mother-in-law." But most of the verbal theatrics came from Faculty members, who went through three long sessions and numerous proposed amendments before agreeing on the Core as we know it today.

Since then, the Faculty has met less and less frequently, tailing off from a once-a-month schedule to 1982's three-times-in-a-year regimen. The tempo will almost certainly not pick up much in 1983. It's not that the rare meetings since the Core debate haven't been magnificent; at back-to-back gatherings in early 1981, for example. Faculty members clashed vigorously over an affirmative action plan for Faculty hiring, and then over the proposed Race Relations Foundation. Discussion ranged from the history of discrimination in the United States to the meaning of meritocracy and the importance of diversity in university settings.

No matter where you stood on the issues, you couldn't help but marvel at the quality of the oratory and discourse. When Rosovsky, over the objections of a minority of professors, approved each proposal, there could remain no doubt about the philosophical and practical strengths and weaknesses of each. The Faculty had done its job.

SO WHY DOESN'T THE FACULTY meet anymore? The conventional wisdom, happily expounded by Faculty officials in recent years, is that there isn't anything to discuss. But in late 1981, around the time the cancellation notices of scheduled Faculty meetings had begun to come almost monthly, one official looked behind that explanation and gave a better one The Faculty's role, he observed, had become "disposative, not consultative."

By that, he meant that the Faculty now dealt only with issues, generally procedural ones, that had been chewed up already by smaller bodies like the Faculty Council. Far from being a body to "consult" on major ethical issues like the University's stand on Vietnam or South Africa investments, as it once had been, the Faculty now existed as a body to talk over and eventually ratify proposals that had been previously issued . In short, the Faculty--the nest of brilliant ideals and lofty debate--had become a rubber stamp.

Obviously there are issues out there that the Faculty could be discussing. But they of Harvard's Faculty, are also most likely to prove for the University. The Faculty Council for one example, spent much of the spring of 1981 discussing a Gay Students association (GSA) proposal that the University forbid discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Eventually it quested the proposal. But the Council operates behind closed doors, and University Hall quickly nixed the GSA's follow-up effort to bring the issue before the Faculty itself, so the arguments responsible for the proposal's defeat never came to light.

Today, University Hall is keeping other, equally sensitive issues off the Faculty's public agenda. Sexual harassment by professors emerged in 1982 as an issue of painful reality. Yet it seems certain did no proposal for discipline guilty Faculty. Instead it will remain bottled up in the Faculty Council, which will do little more than eventually announce that it generally deplores harassment as it did in the GSA case. Such secrecy can cause unexpected as well as obvious problems. As Orlando Patterson, professor of Sociology, recently observed, the effects of Harvard's secrecy on sexual harassment have proven unfortunate indeed. Because the only two sexual harassers publicly identifies by victims are Black. Patterson noted, sexual harassment has begun to seem like a Black man's crime. That perception is patently wrong; Harvard officials themselves have acknowledged that many more than the two publicly identified professors have been found to have committed various degrees of harassment.

An open Faculty meeting could also shed much light on other timely issues. The University's investments in companies involved in nuclear and other arms production, or in cigarette manufacturing--the ethics of neither of which is evident on its face--have been raised before the Corporation, for example. Neither has been brought before a public, scholarly body like the Faculty, however.

SO IT'S NOT THAT there aren't any issues out there. It's that University Hall and the Faculty Council--the folks who decide on the full Faculty's agenda--are uncomfortable bringing them out in the open, where Harvard's stances can be picked apart by dissenting minds. T.S. Eliot once observed that "Humankind cannot bear very much reality." The sentiment would seem to apply to those responsible for keeping the Faculty's agenda free of ethical dilemmas, for exempting University policies from the test of reality.

This is, after all, the University where a dean, in his annual report, once quoted the Chinese Curse of Doom, "May you live in an age of transition." Transition--and open, intellectual debate on even the most time-honored of policies--are signs of health and adaptability, not weakness. Until the administrators who run Harvard recognize that--not just on paper, but in practice as well--the University will continue to stick by policies, like those on gay rights and sexual harassment, that are hopelessly outdated. And it will continue to waste a lot of great minds--those of Harvard's professors--on the very issues where hard thinking and enlightened debate are needed most.