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David H. Dockham '58 has a novel idea: Harvard should own up when it does something egregiously wrong. In theory, it sounds simple. In practice--well, it just doesn't happen in practice.
Dockham is upset about Harvard's recently disclosed participation during the 1950s and 1960s in radiation experiments conducted by University-affiliated scientists on retarded children, without the informed consent of the children or their parents. Harvard has acknowledged that the tests occurred, and a task force headed by Provost Jerry R. Green is investigating the extent of the University's involvement.
University officials, including Green and President Neil L. Rudenstine, have also indicated that they regret that the tests occurred--though they qualify that statement by nothing that it's not 100 percent clear what actually did happen.
That's all good and fine. But Dockham wants Harvard to go one little step further. He wants the University just to say it's sorry. "At some point you just need to apologize and damn the details," says Dockham, an advocate for the retarded. "Harvard needs to apologize publicly and take strong moral leadership. I think they could do that without compromising their position."
Dockham isn't asking for much. All that needs to happen is for Rudenstine to say, unequivocally, that Harvard apologizes for the nature of the tests, and for the fact that victims were tested without their consent. Later on, University lawyers and ethicists can argue about the legality of the tests--about whether Harvard may or may not be legally liable given the standards of the time in which the experiments were conducted.
For, no matter what the actual details, this much is clear: retarded children ingested radiocative food without their knowledge. And that is wrong.
Leave the minutia for later. The University should stop beating around the bush and just say it's sorry.
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