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Albert Speer at Harvard

Decline and Fall

By Ross G. Douthat

In 1937, as part of a program of academic exchange with German universities, Harvard named Albert Speer as a visiting professor of architecture and urban planning. There was some controversy about this appointment: not only was Speer a member of the Nazi party, he was the Third Reich’s leading public architect and a close friend of the Fuehrer. Indeed, shortly after arriving at Harvard, Speer defended the Nazi regime in an interview with the Boston papers, saying that “Adolf Hitler is the glue that holds Germany together.”

His Harvard colleagues didn’t understand why anyone was upset. “I have no problem bringing Albert Speer here,” said one academic, an expert on Germany. “It’s no different than hiring a good physicist who thinks Adolf Hitler is the best invention since sliced bread.” A professor of European history, meanwhile, said, “personally, I think it’s admirable that Speer has served for that government.”

If this story sounds a trifle unbelievable—well, good. It is unbelievable; indeed, it never happened. Albert Speer never taught at Harvard, even in 1937, when the Nazi regime he represented was merely totalitarian, and not yet engaged in attempted genocide.

But Mario Coyula-Cowley does now.

Who is Coyula-Cowley, you ask? Why, he is the new Robert F. Kennedy professor at the Graduate School of Design, where he will teach architecture and urban planning. He is also a member of Cuba’s Communist Party. Indeed, he is a high-ranking government official, the head of the island nation’s urban planning commission. And he is no johnny-come-lately to Fidel Castro’s government—Coyula-Cowley helped organize the 1959 rebellion that swept the bearded dictator into power, and has held numerous government appointments over the decades since. Among other things, he is a senior member of Cuba’s National Union of Artists and Writers; an organization, needless to say, to which anyone who disagrees with the government cannot apply.

Apparently, no one at Harvard has any problem with this. Substitute Coyula-Cowley for Speer (and Castro for Hitler), and the quotes above represent the view of Jorge I. Dominguez, Clarence Dillon professor of international affairs, and Bliss Professor of Latin American History and Economics John Womack, respectively, on the advisability of appointing an apparatchik from a totalitarian state to the Harvard faculty. To them, you can add the names of Steve Reifenberg, director of the Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, who is “enormously pleased to have him here,” and Professor of History James T. Kloppenberg, who told The Crimson that “the quality of a person’s scholarly work, not his or her politics, should determine whether he or she teaches at Harvard.”

None of this should be terribly surprising. There has always been a tendency among America’s intellectuals to downplay the crimes of left-wing regimes, and Castro’s Cuba, in particular, has long been the darling of the American left. With its record of standing up to “Yanqui imperialism,” its much-touted system of universal health care, and its post-Cold War isolation, Cuba’s nasty and oppressive regime seems sad and bullied and even a little bit cute—the “Tickle-Me-Elmo” of totalitarian states. And let’s not forget the enduring appeal of its cigar-chomping despot, the “glue that holds Cuba together,” as Coyula-Cowley says, and the only dictator clever enough to get people to call him by his first name. Why, everybody loves “Fidel”—especially the movie stars, left-of-left congressmen, and American academics who are always flying down to hobnob with him.

As for the people who don’t love him? Well, many of them are dead, or in exile. The rest are in jail—although jail might be too kind a word for what is, to all intents and purposes, a system of warm-weather gulags. Unlike Coyula-Cowley, they don’t have the opportunity to cruise through American supermarkets and then complain to the Boston Globe that “there are too many choices” here. They aren’t pulling down a $50,000 salary, and can’t say smugly, as Harvard’s new professor did in the Globe, that “money isn’t everything.”

They do have names, though, Castro’s prisoners do. Here are just a few of them: Vladimiro Roca, Julia Cecilia Delgado, Angel Moya Acosta, Nestor Rodríguez Lobaina, Rene Montes de Oca, Dr. Oscar Biscet, Jose Orlando Gonzalez Bridon. They are victims of a regime that in 2001 was rated by Freedom House as one of the most repressive in the world —worse than Libya and Syria, worse even than China. They have been arrested for “disrespect,” for “dangerousness,” for “conduct that is in manifest contradiction with the norms of socialist morality.” And none of them will be teaching at Harvard next semester.

That there is a double standard at work here should be obvious. No government official from a right-wing regime would ever be offered a Harvard position. No professor here would ever say it was “admirable” that a visiting academic had served under Augusto Pinochet in Chile, or Francisco Franco in Spain. No one would blather on about “the quality of a person’s scholarly work, not his or her politics,” if the politics in question were fascist.

Ultimately, though, the double standard is a problem for another day—and the specifics of Coyula-Cowley’s politics matter less than the fact that he is a willing, life-long functionary of a totalitarian state, and is therefore complicit in its crimes. If he is not directly responsible for them—well, in 1937, an architect named Albert Speer was not directly responsible for Nazi atrocities; indeed, he would always claim ignorance of them. But no one offered him a position at Harvard.

The fact is, all comparisons aside, Castro’s regime is manifestly evil, and its values and policies, which our new professor has spent his life defending, are in direct conflict with the ideals of truth and freedom that this university claims to stand for. Coyula-Cowley has blood on his hands, and such a man has no business teaching here—or anywhere else in the civilized world, for that matter.

But we are, apparently, “enormously pleased to have him.” Isn’t that swell?

Ross G. Douthat ’02 is a history and literature concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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