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Mansfield Protests Were Misguided


We are not surprised that Kenan Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield Jr. '53 is once again the subject of controversy regarding his statements about race and Harvard. Over the years, Mansfield has made many shocking and even offensive assertions, especially about black students. For example, he has blamed grade inflation at Harvard on blacks, accusing his fellow colleagues of being afraid to give African-American undergraduates the low grades they allegedly deserve. And Mansfield's response to President Neil L. Rudenstine's annual report, "Diversity and Learning," has also caused a stir on campus.

Mansfield's editorial, "A Poor Defense of Diversity," appeared in The Crimson on April 8. In his commentary, Mansfield contended that Harvard's affirmative action policies were undermining the University's commitment to academic excellence. Two weeks ago, a small group of students protested against Mansfield's views both inside and outside his classroom in Harvard Hall, where he was teaching Moral Reasoning 13: Realism and Moralism.

We must stress that we found many of the arguments in Mansfield's editorial neither moral nor reasoned. However, while we share the outrage Mansfield's racist comments may have sparked, we are also disappointed with the nature of the protest against Mansfield's views. The protesters stain a back row of Mansfield's class and walked out silently after 15 minutes. This protest was certainly not as outlandish or offensive as the active disruption of Mansfield's Government 1091 class, "Liberalism and Conservatism in American Politics," which occurred last September. But even this mild disruption is a violation of the sanctity of the classroom and an infringement on Mansfield's professorial rights. Political protests should not take place inside Harvard classrooms.

The protesters were certainly entitled to their right to demonstrate and distribute fliers outside of Harvard Hall. But we must question the effectiveness of and motivation for this protest. In our academic environment, shouldn't those who disagree with Mansfield challenge him in an intellectual context? The protesters have the right to see Mansfield in his office hours, or to ask him to meet for a public debate. Mansfield has never been shy about publicly advocating his opinions. Last year, he even agreed to rebut the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson's speech about affirmative action at the Institute of Politics. Following a charismatic address by Jackson is a daunting task for even an accomplished public speaker, which Mansfield certainly is not, but he gamely attempted to offer a conservative response.

The protesters could also have engaged in academic jousting with Mansfield in various campus media outlets. Perhaps they feared that addressing him seriously would only give his ideas credence that they did not deserve. However, Mansfield will probably continue to be Harvard's most outspoken conservative professor. He has tenure and is not likely to leave anytime soon. This makes any mere one-sided protest particularly ineffective.

One protester claimed that "Harvard needs to watch its professors, watch what they say." We couldn't disagree more. No matter how ridiculous, racist or downright prehistoric a professor's statements are, professors have the right to say what they wish. In fact, everyone in the Harvard community should feel free to engage in the dialogue that the First Amendment was designed to protect, even if their ideas are hurtful or offensive to others. Although libel, slander and words which create "clear and present danger" should be outlawed, feisty political rhetoric should not be censored. Bigoted or misguided ideas should face a barrage of pointed counter-arguments, not the hollow response of silent protests.

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