ON THE OCCASION of Harvard's 300th anniversary Walter Lippmann '09 warned of increasing entanglements between universities and government. Lippmann insisted that, "Harvard stands unqualifiedly for the principle that unless they are independent of each other, the relation between universities and governments will not be healthy."
But whether healthy or not, the relationships between the two institutions have become increasingly entangled. The growth of ties between universities and government has been one of the most significant changes in higher education in this country in the past 50 years. And the links between scholars and policy makers are here to stay. In this atmosphere educators need an ethical framework that both preserves the academic freedom of those scholars working with the government and allows universities to involve themselves in public debates and decisions without mortgaging their institutional independence.
The need for clearer norms for safeguarding academic independence is particularly evident at Harvard. Real-world controversies and outside pressures have become a routine part of life at the University. Debates and demonstrations over public policy issues are frequent and often furious. And pressure to divest stock in companies that do business in countries with repressive governments has brought those debates back to Harvard's corporate home. Meanwhile, United States government agencies that provide funding for academic research are attempting to close the door on free and open scholarship, and the need for universities to lobby in support of federal aid to students has increased dramatically in recent years as lawmakers begin to chop the nation's budget.
Universities clearly are no longer the independent institutions which Lippmann envisioned. They have become inextricably embroiled in the debates and decisions which guide our society. The question is no longer whether that involvement is desirable. It is a reality--one which demands recognition and offers both new opportunities and new obligations for institutions which once basked in their isolation.
In an effort to maintain this isolation in name, if not in practice, Harvard has spent the last 15 years trying to separate the actions of Harvard the $4-billion corporation from those of Harvard the academic institution. But whether the University acts through the management company which oversees its investment portfolio or through Harvard Real Estate--whose expansion has aggravated the problem of homelessness in the city of Cambridge--the responsibility falls in the same place and the consequences are inextricably tied to the putatively isolated business of education.
Harvard the academic institution is tied to these corporate developments no matter how hard it tries to dissociate itself; it must take a positive role in solving the problems that they cause. Divesting itself of the stocks of companies that do business in South Africa, albeit a symbolic gesture, would signal a recognition of that responsibility. More substantive steps would be to help finance homeless shelters in the Cambridge area and to stop taking its low-income housing off the market in favor of lucrative condo conversions.
Universities, and especially Harvard, also need to take a more conscious role in a broader range of policy decisions--and not just on issues directly related to each individual institution. While Harvard has stopped using money given under conditions that constrain academic freedom, it should also lobby actively to end government attempts to impose such constraints. And while Harvard has done a good job lobbying for increased federal student aid, it has not taken a very active role in the debate on improving the nation's grade schools.
Harvard's role as a leader--among universities and in the nation at large--is undeniable. As Harvard the university and Harvard the corporation grow further intertwined with the world around them, that leadership has become, and will continue to be ever more important.
AS THE MAJORITY observes correctly, Harvard is not and should not be an ivory tower. But neither should it allow itself to be distracted from its essential mission.
The University exists to benefit all mankind through teaching and scholarship. It has a duty to pursue solutions to social and scientific problems, to equip and inspire its students to serve society as they serve themselves, and to maintain an intellectual preserve where individuals can challenge any truth or ask any question fearlessly.
Harvard today confronts challenges from within and without that threaten to subvert that mission. The gravest threats are cloaked in good intentions.
In the name of the national interest, the United States government seeks to press scholars into an exclusive academic service, where the fruits of research vanish from view, conclusions are shielded from general scrutiny, and knowledge becomes power without accountability.
In the name of industry--and the almighty dollar--businesses seek to buy Harvard and bend its brainpower to their private gain.
And in the name of morality, opponents of social injustice call for Harvard to lend its institutional endorsement--and its endowment--to an agenda of political ends and means.
Unchecked, the government and the corporations would slowly strangle Harvard by its purse strings. Just as surely, the activists would steal Harvard's most valuable asset: its institutional impartiality.
By refusing to speak in a single voice, Harvard ensures that its many individual voices may clamor freely in dissent. The most persuasive will prevail over the wider public.
Were Harvard to abandon its restraint and raise its voice on behalf of a compelling cause, it would have toppled an ivory tower only to replace it with a no less ignominious Tower of Babel.
Today, as Harvard contemplates its role in the world beyond the Yard, it ought not lose sight of its true purpose. As an academic community, Harvard can offer society no greater gift than its commitment to free and penetrating inquiry.