HIID, Politics And Academe

PRESIDENT BOK defended his nomination of Arnold C. Harberger to head the Harvard Institute for International Development (HIID) last month at Lowell House on the pinnacles of academic freedom. The strident voices of politicized students who objected to Harberger's ties with the oppressive Pinochet government in Chile can not sway him, he argued; that would lower academic appointments from their eminence and subject them to the shifting tides of the external political environment. Attacks on Harberger today could then turn into attacks on left-wing appointments if the national mood suddenly shifted to the far right.

Bok really raises two separate issues: whether politics should affect the decision to appoint Harberger to the Economics Department, and whether they matter in his appointment to head HIID.

Bok argues the University should make academic appointments with a blind eye to politics, and thus avoid being identified with any political ideology. In the case of most academic appointments, politics have no place. But in departments like Economics that often serve as launching pads for lucrative consulting jobs in big business and government, it's naive not to consider politics as one of many considerations in the appointment process--especially when, as in Harberger's case, the appointee has made a career of actively putting his theories into practice. Cases like Harberger's will come up infrequently, but when they do, the University cannot simply pretend that the political consequences of an appointment don't exist.

Bok's argument might make more immediate sense if there were many left-wing appointments he could turn to as examples of the University's open-minded, non-political approach to academic appointments. We wonder who on the Harvard faculty he will defend from the next Joseph McCarthy. Although political considerations should at most be one of many criteria for academic appointments, the University has a responsibility to the students it educates to offer them many different political viewpoints in each discipline. The Economics Department already has many professors well-qualified to teach Harberger's efficiency-first brand of economics. The "academic freedom" which Bok invokes as an excuse for ignoring this problem looks facetious next to the much graver lack of academic freedom encountered by students who want to study any type of economics but the mainstream.

The question of whether to appoint Harberger to an academic position in the Economics Department is thus a much more tortuous one than Bok wants to believe. Harberger is clearly not as extreme a case as the example of a Nazi appointment Bok invoked at Lowell House. But the political questions raised by his appointment to the Economics Department cannot be simply dismissed, as Bok has, on the high ground of academic freedom.

Bok's defense of nominating Harberger to head HIID falls apart on a much more obvious point. Whatever the arguments, pro or con, about academic freedom, the directorship of HIID is not an academic appointment. The HIID directly affects government policies in Third World nations; its work is unavoidably political. Bok could never defend appointing a Nazi to head HIID. Yet he persists in defending Harberger, who, though no Nazi, admits his economic policies work best under "strong governments"--which in practice has meant repressive military dictatorships. It's hard to believe such issues are mere academics to Bok.