Faculty Tables Motion on ‘Civil Dialogue’

With debate over Israeli policy as backdrop, Matory’s motion is rebuffed.

Professors had little enthusiasm for a colleague’s politically charged proposal to reaffirm their commitment to free speech at yesterday’s meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

The motion, by anthropology professor J. Lorand Matory ’82, was a one-sentence affirmation of “civil dialogue” that did not mention Israel, but Matory said it was a direct response to debates at Harvard over Israeli policy toward Palestinians. He has claimed that critics of Israel, like himself, “tremble in fear” of repercussions for their views.

Many Faculty members questioned Matory’s motives and the motion’s relevance. But the Faculty lacked the quorum necessary for an official vote, and instead chose to table the proposal until its December meeting.

Matory’s motion resolved: “That this Faculty commits itself to fostering civil dialogue in which people with a broad range of perspectives feel safe and are encouraged to express their reasoned and evidence-based ideas.”

Wearing a gray suit and red tie, the bespectacled Matory rested his right arm on an empty chair while listening to the initial objections of his colleagues.

“Professor Matory desires a situation in which he may say whatever he wishes, no matter how outrageous or inflammatory,” government professor Eric Nelson said.

Computer science professor Michael O. Rabin said he did not believe the proposal enhanced the Faculty’s existing free speech guidelines and moved to table Matory’s motion.

“I think we can all agree that we have complete confidence in our leadership,” he said.

“It would be extremely awkward now to debate either for or against this motion because then there’s going to be a headline that says that this motion fails,” Rabin added, drawing chuckles from other professors.

It had appeared before the meeting that debate over Matory’s proposal might be heated.

Law Professor Alan M. Dershowitz, a vocal proponent of Israeli policy, told The Crimson via BlackBerry on Monday night that he planned to attend the meeting. Attendance is usually limited to members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and certain students.

Before the meeting began, Dean of the Faculty Michael D. Smith said he had told the University Hall staff to admit Dershowitz if he arrived.

But Dershowitz told The Crimson last night that he decided not to attend the meeting since he said he had been informed that he would not be permitted to voice his opinions.

“I’m allowed to teach undergraduates, but apparently I’m not allowed to speak at Faculty meetings,” he said.

Contacted for comment after the meeting, Classics Professor Richard F. Thomas said that voices in support of Matory may have been stifled, as well.

“I think the motion to table was a reasonable one in many ways, particularly if [Matory’s] motion was going to fail, as it clearly was,” he wrote. “However I thought the tabling was premature and didn’t smell good, coming before and therefore curtailing sufficient discussion, particularly from those who might have spoken in favor.”

One-sixth of the Faculty is required to conduct an official vote. Yesterday’s attendance of 135 fell 10 short of that level.

—Staff writer Johannah S. Cornblatt can be reached at jcornbl@fas.harvard —Staff writer Christian B. Flow can be reached at cflow@fas.harvard