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What the Adams House Masters described as an “unusual” e-mail intended to spark debate on Iraq has provoked concerns—the University president’s included—over the use of a House-wide e-mail to present the Masters’ political views.
In a response to Masters Sean and Judy Palfrey’s message last week, University President Lawrence H. Summers said through a spokesperson, “It was unfortunate that the House e-mail was used to express these views.”
Through the spokesperson, Summers said he did not take issue with the content of the e-mail, which expressed opposition to a “unilateral, pre-emptive strike against Iraq” and urged students to discuss their own positions with the Masters and fellow Adams residents.
Sean Palfrey said that both Summers and Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 expressed concerns to him about whether the Masters’ public position might actually discourage rather than encourage open discussion.
Lewis declined to comment for this story.
Although the Palfreys said they had considered this issue before they chose to speak out, they and others said that in retrospect, students were mostly unconcerned by the message.
While the Palfreys wrote in the e-mail that it was the first time they had “inflicted their national or international perspectives on the house community,” they said the seriousness of a potential war prompted the move.
Sean Palfrey said he thought the Adams e-mail list, the Schmooze, had been notably silent on war in Iraq, in contrast to spirited debates last year on issues of public policy like President Bush’s economic stimulus package.
“We were hoping people could keep it on their radar screen and talk about it,” he said.
The Palfreys said they were not unconditionally opposed to war but felt the country was moving too quickly, without regard for international law or concerns that a cornered Saddam Hussein might be more likely to use weapons of mass destruction.
Both had attended peace marches over the weekend of Jan. 18, Sean Palfrey in Washington and Judy Palfrey in San Francisco, and had fielded student questions about their participation.
“We thought it was appropriate and perhaps important to tell them why we did this,” Sean Palfrey said.
Along with the Palfreys, several students and fellow masters said they doubted students were intimidated by the e-mail from an authority figure.
“Several people who may not have entirely agreed with us were happy to talk, and when I expressed to them the concern we had that it would deter conversation, they laughed,” Palfrey said. “They laughed and said Harvard students don’t get deterred by anything like that, and they said, we know you, and we know you espouse discussion of every point of view.”
Adams resident Max C. Nicholas ’05 said he was happy that the Palfreys were trying to “engage the community” and he said the message made clear they were not trying to win converts to a particular point of view.
John M. Harrington ’03 said that after receiving the e-mail, he and his roommates discussed whether it was appropriate for the masters to take their political stances to their students.
“They’re effectively the first line of the administration we have to talk to,” he said. “Whereas college deans are removed from us, our House Masters are supposed to be our personal deans. Hearing that sort of passed down as the party line can be taken as the word of our administrator—not that that’s what we’re supposed to believe, but that’s the acceptable opinion.”
On the other hand, Harrington said that he, like Nicholas, appreciated that the masters were taking part in the intellectual life of the House.
Lowell Master Diana L. Eck said she considered “engagement on the issues of the day” an important contribution to the Houses, and said she and Lowell Co-Master Dorothy Austin participated in a discussion of the State of the Union address on Tuesday.
“I think both the Palfreys are sensitive enough to community dynamics that [the e-mail] will, in fact, facilitate discussion,” she said.
Leverett Master Howard Georgi wrote in an e-mail that he preferred not to take public political stances, instead opting for individual discussions with students, but he added that this policy was “purely a matter of personal style.”
While Sean and Judy Palfrey said several students have approached them individually to thank them for the e-mail, it has not sparked discussion over the Adams Schmooze list.
“I think that it was essentially a non-issue,” said Adams resident Joshua A. Barro ’05. “They didn’t spur a debate about it, and they didn’t stifle people.”
“Did it produce an overwhelming outpouring? No, and in fact that’s fine,” Sean Palfrey said. “We wrote it very carefully so that it was not contentious in any way.”
Harrington said he thought more people might have responded if the Palfreys had sent the e-mail over the Schmooze, where their opinions “would have been thrown up just like any other student would have expressed an opinion.”
The choice to send the e-mail to all residents, Sean Palfrey said, came because he knew that some students who had asked about their participation in peace marches were not on the Schmooze list.
—Staff writer Nura A. Hossainzadeh contributed to the reporting of this story.
—Staff writer Elisabeth S. Theodore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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