Dunster Despotism


Who is responsible for the never-ending tutor fiasco and the disturbing pattern of free-speech limitations in Dunster House? Apparently, no one.

Last year, eight Dunster tutors, two of whom later resigned over the issue, complained that Dunster Assistant Senior Tutor Vincent W. Li `87 had influenced the hiring of his brother, his girlfriend and two friends. Thirty-nine Dunster students signed a petition calling for Li's removal. Students and tutors charged that Dunster House Master Karel F. Liem was conducting a witch hunt to identify the tutors who spoke anonymously with The Crimson. Assistant Senior Tutor Cynthia Palmer resigned the morning after the petition was circulated, saying that "recent events had affected her decision."

Responding to the complaints, Liem said that he trusted Li "immensely," did not think Li had done anything wrong and saw no problem with the Li brothers co-chairing the pre-med committee. Now, as part of his further response to last year's charge, Liem has announced new rules guiding when tutors can be dismissed. He has also set up a new committee to oversee the first stages of the tutor selection process.

But these changes do nothing to address the fundamental problems of nepotism and undue influence raised last year. In fact, the changes will probably make it even easier for Liem and his friends to dismiss tutors who fail to toe the party line. At best, they are poorly conceived; at worst, they are part of a concerted effort to suppress free speech and obscure the malfeasance that characterizes Liem's despotic reign at Dunster.

Vincent and William Li have responded to last year's allegations by hiring a lawyer to issue warnings that they will pursue legal action against anyone who criticizes their behavior. For that reason alone, the brothers Li don't belong at Dunster or at any other house.


The most advertised change initiated by Liem--the new advisory committee--is a sham. The committee is stocked with Liem cronies: the aforementioned Vince Li, his wife Hetty and a number of natural scientists who Liem works with (including one whose dissertation he advised). Medical School Professor of Microbiology and Molecular Biology Edmund C.C. Lin, a member of the Dunster Senior Common Room, is so concerned about the committee's composition that he plans to issue a written warning to two faculty members on the committee, "so they won't be taken in by the others."

Under the new guidelines, tutors may be dismissed for "being disruptive to the House community," "inability to work in a team setting" and "setting a poor role model for students." These arbitrary grounds for dismissal are further examples of veiled threats to free speech.

If that first reason sounds familiar, it should. That's the same rationale Liem used two years ago to "not rehire" Noel Ignative, after his comments on a separate kosher toaster in the house dining hall angered some students. It is much easier to "not rehire" a tutor then it is to actively fire him or her. Liem clearly realized that this spring when, according to Senior Tutor Henriette L. Power, Liem threatened to fire the outspoken tutors until Jewett intervened and told him there were no grounds to do so. Now, of course, Liem won't have to fire anyone. They can simply "not be rehired."

Something is rotten in Dunster. The real question is, why doesn't the college do something about it? The tutors who complained to The Crimson last spring spoke with Jewett in two separate meetings earlier in the year. The student petition was also directed at Jewett. He has clearly tried to intervene on the margins of this affair. (Power also said that Jewett helped convince Liem to hold an open meeting of tutors and students last spring.) But his main comment on the subject last spring seemed to be that "if there are serious violations and intentional violations, then the master might feel action should be take. We will leave it up to the house master to determine this."

But leaving it up to the house master is precisely why all this happened in the first place. Last spring we said that Liem should resign and make way for a house master who cared more about the interests of Dunster students than protecting his own fiefdom. If anything Liem has now made the situation worse by subjecting all tutors to his arbitrary discrimination.

All this is symptomatic of a pathology at the heart of this University. Administrators here seem incapable of acknowledging error. They rule for their own convenience, not for the good of teachers, students or workers.

If anything can be worse than Liem's actions, it's Jewett's inaction. He has effectively endorsed the house master in his campaign to suppress free speech. His weakness in the face of clear wrongdoing raises the question of whether he is too ineffective to be dean of Harvard College.

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