The University's invitation of the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to speak has ignited campus debate over homosexuality and military service, and it's a debate worth having.
Indeed, as discussions taking place all across the University indicate, the issue of gays in the military is not closed. There are legitimate arguments on both sides. And it is precisely because the arguments are legitimate that Powell's position on the issue against inclusion should not disqualify him from being honored by a Harvard audience.
Arguing against the inclusion of gays in the military--as Powell has--is not bigotry. Rather, Powell appears to have understandable concerns about the feasibility and advisability of such a step.
Allowing as many people as possible the right to join the military is an argument for lifting the ban. yet, there are reasonable arguments for keeping the ban, at least partially.
First, privacy: should men or women be forced to live in cramped quarters with people who might find them sexually attractive? We don't ask men and women to live together partially for this reason. Currently in the military this is not a problem because gays are forced to hide their orientation.
Second, morale: the military does all it can to keep unnecessary pressures and tensions from infiltrating the working and living environment. Sexual tension, let alone sexual activity, can poison this environment and ruin efficiency. In addition, any relations within units could threaten the chain of command, the backbone of the military.
The issue of gays in the military is much closer to the issue of women than that of segregation of Blacks. The issue of women in the military has not yet been satisfactorally resolved. There were some serious complications in the Persian Gulf when men and women were stationed together.
Women are still not allowed in most situations where close quarters make segregations very difficult (i.e. submarines, combat ships.) Should they be? Two women on a sub could be a very disruptive situation, just as two openly gay men could be.
These arguments are not based on bigoted assumptions about gays, but rather on an innate human characteristic: sexuality.
Given that the issue is far from decided and that opposition to lifting the ban is not necessarily bigotry, does Powell meet the qualifications of a Commencement speaker and an award recipient?
Without question, he does. Powell is a man of amazing achievement. Rising to the top of the military is an extraordinary achievement in itself. This is doubly impressive for Powell as a Black man in an often racist military. He is a role model and a ground breaker.
All this aside though, there is no necessity for the University to agree with the Commencement speaker. Undoubtedly there have been many Commencement speakers with whom the University has had disagreements in the past. Nor does the Commencement speaker have to be acceptable to all. If Hillary Rodham Clinton were chosen, she would be offensive to pro-life students, as offensive as Powell is to opponents of the ban. Yet few would argue that she doesn't merit an invitation.
And there is no need, as has been suggested by protestors, for Rudenstine to publicly disassociate himself from Powell. The University position is well known. Doing so would unnecessarily tarnish the event.
Certainly there are some limits to who should speak at Commencement--have speakers should not be invited. But Powell does not fit into this category. There is no indication that he is prejudiced against gays, only that he thinks they should not be openly in the military.
Powell will make some students uncomfortable--that is the nature of hearing different and opposing ideas. Discomfort leads to thought and discussion though. So think, discuss, and protest, but let him speak.