Harvard’s One Voice

Lewis’ dissent stands out sharply against Harvard’s party line

The Red Line

I would bet that this academic year has been the Faust administration’s hardest to date.

Every university faces its share of critics. Harvard has had many in the past year, ranging from the nearly 200 faculty members who signed a petition decrying the University’s response to Occupy Harvard last year to the tens of thousands who called on Harvard not to appoint former Mexican President Felipe Calderon to a fellowship at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government earlier this semester. But although responses like these may put uncomfortable pressure on a university, none have rocked national news headlines and put quite so much public heat on the Faust administration as this year’s cheating scandal.

What made the cheating scandal a “scandal” instead of simply a routine university response to academic dishonesty? In part, the national media loves a story about Harvard, especially one that makes our famed university look bad. But I believe Harvard’s current administration may have fallen harder than it had to: The cheating scandal and the story of Harvard’s poor follow-up sharply cracked the façade of perfection that the Faust administration has been working hard to maintain. When all Harvard administrators speak with one voice, our university loses both the value of open discussion and the resilience of a community that welcomes internal dissent.

The 2012 Harvard cheating scandal began last spring when the instructor for Government 1310: “Introduction to Congress” reported potential plagiarism to the Administrative Board, launching an investigation into potential collaboration between 125 students. The news that nearly two percent of Harvard’s undergraduate student body may have cheated on an exam quickly made its way into the national news, fed by a sports news audience interested to see how Harvard’s basketball team would fare once its two captains withdrew for the season.

More recently, Boston Globe correspondent Mary Carmichael broke the story that Harvard had secretly snooped through the emails of 16 resident deans to determine who had leaked a supposedly confidential email about the cheating investigation, sparking discussion within the Harvard community about privacy and trust as well as stories across the national press about administrative blundering.

Former Dean of Harvard College and current Director of Undergraduate Studies in Computer Science Harry R. Lewis has been outspoken in his written and verbal critique of the administration’s handling of the cheating scandal. In his blog, Lewis has written extensively on the scandal in the past two semesters. He wrote in February, “What troubles me [is] why harsh penalties were meted out to more than a hundred students… when there were so many shades of gray in what students did and so much room for misinterpreting the course’s rules and policies.” More recently, Lewis argued that forwarding an email to students to clarify his or her academic status was “not an offense worth combing through email boxes.” However, his blog posts fall within a field of relative radio silence from Faust and other administrators.

Harvard’s last president, Larry H. Summers, was notoriously outspoken about his personal beliefs, decrying calls to divest from Israel as anti-semitic and vocalizing support for a theory of innate difference in aptitude across genders that eventually cost him his position as president. Faust’s administration seems to have learned from Summers’ blunders.

Indeed, Faust and every other dean or top administrator appear to speak with “one voice”—the official voice of Harvard. Student activists and Undergraduate Council members are frustrated by meetings with President Faust in which she fails to vocalize any opinions other than repeating already-published University position or policy. Faust’s administration relies on spokespeople to speak to the press and repeat to students and faculty only the official Harvard party line on controversial issues ranging from endowment investments to union contract negotiations to the cheating scandal to last year’s Yard lockdown. If any administrator supported the aims of the student protestors who occupied Harvard Yard last year (for example, I might have expected that Dean of the College Evelynn M. Hammonds, whose academic work on queer theory and black feminism informed the politics of many of us involved in Occupy, might have had a few sympathetic words for free speech and economic justice), neither students nor reporters heard a single peep. Hammonds, like all other administrators involved in addressing student protestors, simply repeated the University’s published statements on Yard access and safety.

It is because of this silence that Lewis’ dissent is so surprising.  Lewis, along with one or two important alumni, is nearly alone in vocally critiquing the administration’s handling of the cheating scandal. The University cannot forbid a current faculty member from expressive his critiques of Harvard’s performance, as it apparently has done with its current deans and administrators. Yet isn’t vigorous debate, respect for divergent viewpoints, and political controversy an integral part of a University community?

Certainly, some of former President Summers’s tactless statements were heartily embarrassing to Harvard and its other administrators. But Faust has gone too far the other direction. By presenting a uniform and unanimous face to the media and the University community, the Faust administration has harmed itself by constructing an image of infallible perfection, a carefully polished porcelain vase that is just too easy to knock to the ground and shatter. Our administration should learn from this year’s scandals that honesty and internal critique—like that of Harry R. Lewis—is valuable and indeed essential to a healthy university community.

Sandra Y. L. Korn ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a joint history of science and studies of women, gender, and sexuality concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays. Follow her on Twitter @sandraylk.

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