Call It Off
Dear President Bok:
I'm dismayed to read in The New York Times that you have invited President Reagan to speak at the 350th anniversary convocation and that Harvards is considering whether to award him an honorary degree, I write to oppose an honorary degree and to urge you to seek some way to withdraw your invitation to him to speak.
If Reagan should get such a degree, or even if he should speak at the convocation, I would have to stop making my annual contribution to Harvard, even for my 50th reunion year (1987) when I'm sure the pressure will be on to give more My annual contribution, of $50, is a pittance. Reagan's appearance probably would persuade some rich and tightest alumni to give more, so the withholding of my pittance would be only symbolic, but I would guess there would be plenty of other symbolic, and some more substantial, withdrawals of support for Harvard.
According to The Times, the argument for giving Reagan a degree is "that Harvard would be honoring the office of the President not necessarily the man who holds it. "I don't think such a distinction can be made. His very appearance at Harvard would capitalize on it. Harvard would be perceived as either applauding the man, as well as respecting his office, or at least as thinking that he is harmless enough to be or act, on this occasion as a political neuter Reagan, ideologue and politician to the core of his being, could not be, above politics in the decision it makes I remembered with pleasure FDR's appearance at the 300th anniversary, when I was an undergraduate, I didn't mind his politics so much. As remember it, it was a political as well as an academic event.
I remember back in 1970 when the faculty of the State University at Albany, where I worked for 20 years until my retirement voted to condemn Nixon's invasive of Cambodia. Then, a few days later, enough conservatives, some trying to think they were just academic purists, preaching "academic freedom" and "the university should not get involved in politics," managed to call another meeting and get out resolution rescinded. But their reneging vote, much as they wanted not to think so, was just as political as ours. It was a failure to vote against that bad war and so was a silent vote that condoned it. Any act of respect by Harvard to "the office of the President," while Reagan holds it, would be just as political. One hundred thirty-seven years ago, during the Mexican War, one good Harvard graduate wrote: "How does it become a man to behave toward this American government today? I answer, that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it." What would Thoreau have said it Harvard had invited President Polk to such an attain as the 350th anniversary celebration?
I urge you to be realistic. You can't have that man up there without making Harvard, along with the television cameras, give him glory. Not only glory, but to some degree more power. It would necessarily be a silent vote, by a great institution, for him, condoning the dangerous threat he increasingly poses to our Republic and to peace and justice in the whole world. I urge you to call it off. William E. Rowley '37