The Graying of Derek Bok

Defending the Ivy Tower

This is the last of three articles.

Of all the faculty members in the University, The Crimson reported when the search for Harvard's 25th president was in full swing, Derek Bok was perhaps the most popular among his students. Bok's popularity, the newspaper observed, derived partially from his ability to teach, but "primarily form his stands on controversial issues." While at the Law School, as a professor and then dean, Bok had actively promoted affirmative action, taken a strong stand against the war in Cambodia, and flown to Washington to voice his opposition to G. Harold Carswell's nomination to the Supreme Court. He boasted the record, as colleagues uniformly described it, of a "good liberal."

In his more than eight years in Massachusetts Hall, perhaps nothing has been attacked or scrutinized more than Bok's personal politics. Like his predecessor--who had come to be seen as the symbol of a tightlipped conservative institution which cared little for its students--Bok has increasingly come to symbolize what many label an increasingly amoral, conservative university. In the spring of 1978, when 3000 students marched in torchlight to demand Harvard's withdrawal from corporations doing business in South Africa, the crowd chanted, "Hey, hey, Derek Bok, Throw away your racist stock." The slogan, though rhetorical, aptly represented most students' perceptions: that Bok holds Harvard's values as his own.

That perception derives in part from Bok's continued refusal to speak out in issues he believes are not directly related to education. While other university presidents brandish liberal credentials by offering an opinion on nearly every political issue that comes along, Bok hesitates to speak publicly. "I don't think I can do justice to this institution and still have much time left over to become involved with national issues," he explains.

Some say this attitude reflects Bok's narrow conception of his role. "His universe is very much bordered by Harvard," says one high-ranking administrator. "He doesn't do anything outside that doesn't bear directly on Harvard." As a university president, Bok feels he cannot speak as a private individual. "He has a philosophy like judges have about their public role," John G. Simon '50, a longtime friend of Bok's, explains. "They will be respected and honored as long as they don't speak about things they don't know about."


Bok believes the most serious mistake he can make is speaking about something he is not properly qualified to offer an opinion on. Before he articulates his views on a subject, he tests himself. "If I couldn't get up in a group of knowledgeable people and really hold my own in a tough debate on the issue, I'd better not speak on it," he says. As a result, Bok rarely says anything one would not expect him to say, often drawing on past examples and consistently lifting arguments from his past speeches and articles and repeating them--sometimes verbatim--in another.

Throughout his tenure, as Daniel Steiner '54, general counsel to the University, says, Bok has made it clear that he is not the kind of person who reacts to issues in a "gut fashion." When Bok is even the least bit hesitant about an issue, he assiduously avoids an answer--like his wife, an expert in medical ethics who once refused comment on the Karen Quinlan case. Bok will talk about touchier issues--such as Black students' frustration--but only if he can do so off the record. Some say Bok is unnecessarily wedded to a script, that he has trouble thinking on his feet. "He prepares his case like a lawyer," and gathers everything he can find to support his position, one Faculty member says, because "he does not like to be challenged."

Seen in this light, Bok's five open letters on the University's ethical responsibilities are symbolic of the president whom another Faculty member says "never does anything or says anything unless he has thought it out endlessly." If the final product is exhaustively legalistic and ponderous--"unmistakably Bok's own work," says one insider--the letters themselves are unique. "That degree of absolute candor is quite rare of a college president," John M. Blum '57, a former member of the Corporation, says, adding, "The process merits approval even if one disagrees with the views." Bok says each letter took about 150 hours, and that he went through a minimum of ten drafts.

Bok explains that he wrote the open letters for three reasons: to show that the University takes ethical issues seriously; to make sure he personally had thought about the issues; and to lift the quality of the debate and "force people to respond at a more responsible level." Some doubt Bok's stated reasons, noting that he had been forced into writing the letters in order to calm an already tense situtation. They point to October 1976, when in a Change magazine artile entitled, "Can Ethics Be Taught?" Bok stated:

If a university expects to overcome the sense of moral cynicism among its students, it must not merely offer courses; it will have to demonstrate its own commitment to principled behavior by making a serious effort to deal with the ethical aspects of its investment policies, its employment practices, and the other moral dilemmas that inevitably confront every educational institution.

Yet, the president waited until the spring of 1979--long after students had raised those issues--to take measures which he believes demonstrate that commitment.

In the letters and in his previous writings, Bok outlines a philosophy of the University's role that rests on the assumption, as he writes in the last letter, that "academic institutions are dedicated to the discovery and transmission of knowledge." At the core of Bok's vision of higher education is the defense of "fragile" universities' independence and "academic freedom"; he continually returns to what Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter once called the University's "four essential freedoms--to determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it should be taught, and who may be admitted to study." The University must create an environment where teachers and scholars can express any views they please, and where students are given the background to take positions, but not "presented with a set of preferred answers." "Intellectual freedom," Bok argued in his first letter, "is not a condition that is merely desirable. It is essential to the progress of learning and discovery to which the institution is committed and any course of action that endangers it must arouse grave concern."

If the University must give individuals free reign to express their opinions, it must not--except in very rare cases--take institutional moral positions. To do so, Bok warns, is to force the University (1) to open itself up to outside unwanted pressures; (2) to try and develop standards of moral behavior which are virtually impossible to develop and threaten to become obsolete orthodoxies; and (3) to put the University's academic reputation on the line. Though Bok seriously doubts the University's ability to reform society in any way outside of academic discoveries--"rarely will the institutional acts of a single university have any substantial possibility of putting an end to the misfortunes that exist in society," he writes in his first letter--he says that any such position must be carefully arrived at and consistently applied.

What emerges from the letters is a relatively conservative philosophy toward effecting reform; he continually tries to shift the burden of proof to those who are demanding change. One critic points to what he calls an "essential hypocrisy" in the president's philosophy. On the one hand, Bok argues that universities should not actively seek a moral role or assume moral positions, that they are somehow "above the fray." On the other, Bok, as his letter on divestiture reveals, does not believe that "one can somehow achieve moral purity by separating oneself entirely from evil." In the spring of 1972 when 24 Black students occupied Massachusetts Hall to demand that Harvard sell its holdings in Gulf Oil Corporation because of the company's operations in Angola, Bok said, "It's not impractical to pull out. But by doing so," he added, "we turn our back upon the problems of the world in the hope that we can disengage ourselves from all responsibility for evil." Bok's critics say that the president is arguing both sides of the question--simultaneously shunning moral decisions and advocating moral actions.

Although Stanley Hoffman, professor of Government, praises Bok's initiative, he says that the president is perhaps too "keen" on preventing the University from being buffeted by the outside world. "We are in the world. Period. It's not an ivy tower," Hoffman says. "While we should not let ourselves be part of political games, we might as well face the facts."

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