Evaluating Ethics in Academia

Ethics of Scholarship

When the Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES) this year appointed a new director, they chose a scholar of the 10th century in what some scholars describe as an attempt to escape the ethical dilemmas of the 20th century.

Unlike the old director, Albertson Professor of Middle Eastern Studies Nadav Safran--who earned headlines for accepting, without publicly disclosing, money from the CIA to sponsor a conference on modern diplomatic affairs--the center's new administrator, Professor of Islamic History Roy P. Mottahedeh '60, has little scholarly interest or experience with current events.

Observers say that by replacing Safran with Mottahedeh, an expert on Islam during the Middle Ages, the University provided an example of one technique for settling a thorny ethical issue--remove the atmosphere which fostered the controversy.

The revelation in 1985 of Safran's use of CIA funds as well as a similar case the next year, sparked a reevaluation of the ethical aspects of academic scholarship. The crux of the reevaluation was not the questionable nature of the sponsor for this research--America's chief covert bureau--but the agency's requirements that manuscripts must pass a prepublication review and that the source of the funding not be made public.

Both President Bok and the Faculty this year addressed the issues raised by the conditions of CIA research concluding that the ethics and University regulations of such work are vague and not widely understood.

In the case of the CMES the best way to avoid these ethical problems seemed to be to avoid them altogether.

According to Dean of the Faculty A. Michael Spence, scholarship of the modern Middle East can be more susceptible to ethical problems. "It's a sticky area," he said in an interview shortly after the announcement of Mottahedeh's appointment.

"The main thing the center needed was someone like Roy, who promised leadership, and a period of relative stability and clam," Spence said.

Mottahedeh said in interviews after his appointment it was inevitable that a director leave his imprint on a center, and that his inclinations tended to smaller, less splashy, study groups, rather than to the larger international conferences.

A by-product of his more restrained academic tastes, he said, was that they required less money.

It is, after all, money which is usually the pivotal agent in creating ethically problematic scholarship, and if one response of the FAS has been to edge away from controversial academic areas, administrators say another tactic has been to make the existing rules governing the acceptance of grant money more and more inclusive.

Safran drew official University criticism for failing to notify Harvard officials about receiving funding from the CIA to sponsor a conference on the Middle East. The scholar of Egypt failed to notify the participants in the conference about the CIA funding.

Safran also received CIA funding, to research his book called "Saudi Arabia: Ceaseless Quest for Security." In the case of the book, Safran informed then-Dean of the Faculty Henry Rosovsky of the grant, although he did not publicly disclose the funding.

It was also learned that Safran agreed to give pre-publication rights to the CIA.

In response to charges that Safran's dealings with the CIA violated basic principles of academic freedom, President Bok authored an open letter on secrecy in research, which was interpreted as a critique of the University's current rules about sponsored research.