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Text of Conant's Speech


The full text of President Conant's statement to the Foundation for Advanced Study and Research:

I am delighted to have an opportunity of saying a few words to this group of alumni of the graduate schools of the University who have been good enough to come together in connection with the formation of the new Foundation for Advanced Study and Research. We are grateful for your interest in what we have been doing here in Cambridge and what we plan to do in the future. Our plans concern first of all the providing of adequate dormitory facilities for the advanced students, and secondly, increasing our resources for research and scholarly activities in a wide variety of fields. Much of our discussion will have to turn on ways and means of fluding funds, but I do not propose in my remarks to dwell on those aspects of our problem, important as they are.

Rather, I should like to underline the obvious fact that the standing of any university depends primarily on the quality of its teachers and of its students. I do not have to tell this group of holders of advanced degrees that a university is first and foremost a band of scholars,--members of that ancient and universal company to which the President of Harvard admits the recipients of the Doctor's degree on Commencement day. "To advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity" is the constant aim of the members of a university. In their efforts they must by definition be always concerned with difficult questions, be they in theology, philosophy, political theory, economics, or even the natural sciences. To difficult questions there are no certain answers; controversy and vigorous discussion in consequence are the very breath of life of a university. Through the centuries this aspect of university work has frequently led to criticisms on the part of some who view the academic scene from a distance. Sometimes universities are held to be too connective and sometimes too radical. Indeed, it has happened that both criticisms were leveled simultaneously at a given institution. For example, Oxford and Cambridge were both belabored with hard words by Thomas Hobbes and John Milton at the same moment; in the one instance for being hotbeds of republicanism and rebellion, and in the other for being reactionary strongholds of the church and partisans of an autocratic king.

Today we are in a period of passing excitement in this country as a consequence of the reactions which almost always follow a war and the tensions created by a divided world. As has happened repeatedly in the history of the universities, Harvard, along with other American institutions of advanced learning, is being subject to criticism, most of which is based on a total misunderstanding of the nature of university work.

I feel sure that no one in this audience has any question as to the validity of the Harvard tradition of free inquiry on the one hand and the independence of the faculties on the other. However, last there he any misunderstanding about our position today, I am venturing to take a moment of your time to discuss the situation which faces Harvard and other universities.

In this period of a cold war, I do not believe the usual rules as to political parties apply to the Communist party. I am convinced that conspiracy and calculated deceit have been and are the characteristic pattern of behavior of regular Communists all over the world. For these seasons, as far as I am concerned, card holding members of the Communist party are out of bounds as members of the teaching profession. I should not want to be a party to the appointment of such a person to a teaching position with tenure in any educational institution. But with this single exception which is the unique product of our century, I maintain that a professor's political views, social philosophy or religion are of no concern in the University; nor are big activities within the law as a private citizen. I do not have to remind this audience that this is the traditional Harvard position and will be maintained in the face of whatever criticisms may come. Admittedly a university might be faced with a difficult problem if some member of the permanent staff should suddenly announce that he was a full fledged member of the Communist party, but no such problem exists here at Harvard; and when it comes to the possible presence of secret members of the Party on the teaching staff of an institution. I can only endorse what has been so well said by Grenville Clark in has recent letter to Mr. Ober, namely. "The harm done by the effort to discover even a single clandestine Party member would out weigh any possible benefit."

As long as I am President of the University, I can assure you there will be no policy of inquiry into the political views of the members of the staff and no watching over their activities as private citizens. Any suggestion that we should employ here a procedure comparable to that required by the necessities of secret government work and investigate the loyalty of our staff is utterly repugnant to my concept of a university. On this point I am sure you will all agree. You will likewise join with me in condemning "the careless, incorrect and unjust use of such words as 'Red' and 'Communist' to attack teachers and other persons who in point of fact are not Communists but who merely have views different from those of their accusers." I quote from the report of the National Education Association which I signed together with nineteen other educators.

It all adds up to the fact that a university is not a government bureau of a business organisation: the conditions necessary for its spiritual prosperity have been determined by centuries of experience. Harvard was one of the first Amerison colleges to become a university; we have therefore a special duty to uphold the university traditions in the years ahead. With your understanding assistance and that of the other alumni I am confident we can succeed.

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