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THE CORPORATION'S decision last week not to award honorary degrees at the 350th Commencement next June, like so many small incidents in a large organization, reveals even more about Harvard as an institution than it does about the specific issue at hand. Every informed person seems reasonably sure that the decision stemmed from a desire to avoid demonstrations or other "unpleasantries" directed against President Reagan, the most likely honorary recipient. If true, this is certainly a bona fide reason for the decision; no one wants Harvard to look stupid on national television. But why did the Corporation fear such disruption in the first place?
Certainly history bears out the decision. Caspar Weinberger '38 was the last major Administration official to visit campus. His raucous reception a couple of years ago must have been much on the minds of the Corporation Fellows as they deliberated on the subject of honoraries. And leaders of left-of-center student groups have made no bones about their opposition, perhaps a vocal and even violent one, to Reagan's invitation.
But what is the source of this opposition? This isn't as patently obvious a question as it first sounds. The most common rationale I've heard for not giving the President an honorary is that "he's not worthy of one." In answer to the query "Why?," I usually hear some variant of the theme "he's an enemy of higher education" (read "he's tried to cut student aid"). Never mind that Reagan is the premier politician of our times, with more practical knowledge of politics than any Harvard undergraduate Gov concentrator--he's still "unworthy" of a degree.
The statement that Reagan opposes federal aid to students isn't very interesting or revealing. It's not hard to show that he has indeed tried to reduce federal subsidies to college and university students (with an almost complete lack of success). But the absolute certainty that dozens, maybe hundreds, of degree recipients next June will share the President's views toward higher education, and will someday no doubt fight for them, doesn't bother the people who say Reagan's "unworthy." They don't go so far as to say such students shouldn't be graced with a Harvard degree, but it's not difficult to stretch the reasoning that far.
We still haven't cut to the core of the matter. What does the easily-proven risk of protest against Reagan say about Harvard and the groups which make it up? In a broader sense, what do many of the issues involving Harvard's interaction with the larger community say about the way Harvard views itself?
THE FIRST ISSUE to consider is that of pressure. At the root of the opposition to the granting of an honorary to the President is the implicit notion of Harvard as a pressure group in our society. Some members of our community may prefer to call it "making a statement" or "putting Harvard's influence behind a moral stand" (that is, when they don't fall back on the cop-out of "he's not worthy"). But when all is said and done, breaking the long-standing precedent of offering honorary degrees to Presidents on major Commencement dates--Roosevelt 50 years ago (he already had one), Grover Cleveland 100 years ago (he said he was unworthy, interestingly enough), and Andrew Jackson 150 years ago--clearly places Harvard on the long list of those groups in American society which oppose the bulk of the Administration's Just because it's an act of omission doesn't make it any less clear. Oxford did precisely the same thing last year by not granting Margaret Thatcher a similar honor, and all observers viewed the action as political in nature.
However, it's not inherently a condemnation to say that the root of the opposition to Reagan's reception of an honorary is political. Reagan, the Presidency itself, and most of our society is soaked through and through with politics of one sort or another. The interesting thing is that so many members of our community feel compelled to couch it in other terms ("worthiness," for instance). What this incident shows about Harvard is that we are passing through a sort of uneasy transition period in which some acts of purely political pressure are acceptable, and some are not.
The list is long. Divestment is just the most obvious case. Some student and faculty supporters of it describe it as a "moral" act, others as political pressure, still others as both. Almost everyone accepts, at least outwardly, the notion that groups within Harvard may pressure one another, but not all that Harvard may rightly pressure the "outside."
On the other hand, our community has been virtually unanimous in condemning the various attempts of the Reagan Administration to control the availability of research results in the name of national security. This is never portrayed as a "political" issue, but rather as a First Amendment situation in which the Federal government has no "right" to restrict Harvard.
Yet another interesting issue area is rent control. Harvard officials sometimes question the legal "right" of Cambridge to restrict the University's real estate policy. Student and faculty groups sometimes condemn the University as a political "bully" of sorts as it attempts to implement real estate programs in its extensive Cambridge holdings.
Who's right? Is the University, by virtue of its mandate to teach and pursue research, entitled to reject most over-sight by the surrounding community? Can Harvard figuratively slap a President in the face with impunity? Or has Harvard evolved into just another political entity in society, like a PAC or a lobbying group, differentiated from other political groups only by power and prestige?
The direct answer to this question is that there is no answer, that in fact we are watching the answer unfold. Sometimes Harvard groups and Harvard itself claim the mantle of "universityhood" to legitimize, even to shield, an action or a stand. Sometimes Harvard groups or individuals feel forced to justify an action with non-political reasoning ("he's unworthy," "it's a moral stand"). Sometimes blatantly political terms are used to justify action. But no one, except possibly Derek Bok, has seriously tried to untangle this massive web of conflicting arguments.
ANOTHER WAY to look at the problem of Harvard's role in society is to consider the idea of leadership. In the issues I've discussed leadership is just the nicest way to describe pressure or influence. Rejecting Reagan could be called an exercise of leadership, in the sense that the bulk of America approves of the President and Harvard's action may contribute to a change in that fact. If the American people's support of Ronald Reagan is wrong-headed, then this would be leadership at its best--taking on a popular leader in time of peace and prosperity because Harvard knows better than the people. This is just another facet of the emerging political "consciousness" on campus--the more the differences between Harvard and more forthright political groups disappear, the less reason there is for Harvard not to exercise its academic leadership.
Somewhat the same attitude was shown earlier this month by the Harvard physicists who signed a petition pledging refusal of so-called "Star Wars" research funds. The political intent here is clear--through denial of their skills, these scientists hope to deter the federal government from pursuing this research, or, failing that, simply to undermine the effort at the outset. The physicists may say that they're doing it just for "moral" reasons, that in fact their individual refusal does not constitute policy by default. However, their urging of their colleagues to follow their example belies any such stand.
If enough scientists and technicians follow Harvard's and other schools' lead and exercise their "right" to abstain from this research, then the policy will be scrapped not by Congress, our elected representatives, but by a handful of academic experts. Why would this be "right?" Presumably because the scientists know better than the people and Congress that this program is dangerous and ill-considered. They would become political actors of the first order, and yet would still claim their "right" to be free from political pressure.
SO IS HARVARD A political body or not? Can we claim academic independence and freedom while at the same time diving ever deeper into contemporary issues? Derek Bok thinks not, as he has written in several open letters on divestment. He asserts that universities are something more than PACs or the Democratic Party National Committee, and can thus claim protection against political pressure (but his resolve appears to be steadily eroding, at least on the divestment issue). Many other Harvard-affiliated individuals and groups, on the other hand, are unabashed about their desire to force Harvard bodily into the political arena. It seems, though, that most of our colleagues are in an uncomfortable middle ground, supporting political actions and statements with the institutional weight of Harvard behind them, and yet uneasy about forthrightly admitting their support and desire to lead.
The reasoning behind the spiral of political activism desired by many Harvard members is still mostly cloudy. Many members of our community do not seem prepared to relinquish their scholarly claim to independence as they push for increased Harvard interaction with the community. It appears that many Harvard members believe you can have your cake and eat it, too, as long as you shelter behind the protective shield of veritas.
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