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University President Lawrence H. Summers said Harvard has a responsibility to defend the intellectual freedom of its scholars from potential infringement by government agencies under the U.S.A. PATRIOT Act and related legislation at a Faculty meeting yesterday.
Spurred by faculty members’ concerns over the possibility of such restrictions, Summers’ statement concurred with other faculty members’ assertions that the University ought to take a position on political issues directly influencing the academic community.
But he said the Faculty should refrain from taking a stance on those matters which are not of direct concern to the academic community.
Describing the University’s resistance to McCarthy-era investigations of its faculty members as “one of its proudest moments,” Summers said that while Harvard will not disobey any government mandates, it will do everything possible to ensure that its scholars’ intellectual liberties are not violated.
“The University will uphold commitment to academic freedom with all the vigor it can,” Summers told the Faculty at the meeting’s close.
Concerns about intellectual freedom were first brought to the Faculty docket by Professor of Greek and Latin Richard F. Thomas, who said that the measures of the PATRIOT Act and yet-to-be-passed PATRIOT Act II, threaten to affront the University’s values of intellectual openness.
He read a statement at the meeting by two non-citizen, junior members of his department, who did not wish to be identified. Its authors said they did not feel welcome to contribute to debates about their statement because they feared formal or informal “recrimination” within the University.
While commending the University’s attention to this issue thus far, Thomas suggested that the Faculty explore the concerns that heightened governmental surveillance raises for the University’s responsibilities to its scholars and students.
He said his concern about the academic implications of post-Sept. 11 legislation arose independent of U.S. military intervention in Iraq—a distinction that became important early in the discussion when Summers mistakenly bundled Thomas’s planned discussion of academic freedom with a plea for debate on divestment from U.S. government defense contractors signed by 26 faculty members.
Responding to the divestment question, which Pulitzer Professor of Modern Art Yve Alain-Bois raised during a question period, Summers said that the Faculty as a whole ought not to take a position on political issues.
“The understanding we have with the community depends on the fact that we do not seek to pressure society on matters of communal importance,” he said.
But some members of the Faculty took issue with Summers’ statement, remarking that Harvard has a history of assuming political stances on issues relevant to University life.
Pforzheimer University Professor Sidney Verba noted that Summers recently issued a public statement endorsing affirmative action on behalf of the University.
Verba said the Faculty ought to distinguish between policies relevant and irrelevant to academic life in determining which debates to bring to the Faculty forum. While Faculty members should be free to address questions of divestment individually, he said, the Faculty should debate and be allowed to take a stance on an issue as close to the interests of the University as academic freedom.
Summers later concurred with Verba’s distinction. The University, he said, will guard against infringements to its intellectual freedom. Harvard pledges its support to such interests—and will facilitate faculty debate—because possible restrictions of academic freedom directly threaten the University’s most fundamental goals, he said.
Taking a unified policy on non-academic political issues, on the other hand, could alienate and intimidate members of the Faculty who dissent—a gesture not at all conducive to intellectual freedom, he said.
But Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value Elaine Scarry said that she found such a position inconsistent with Summers’ recent articulation of the University’s stance on affirmative action.
“On affirmative action, surely there would be people who would dissent,” she said, urging reexamination of Summers’ criteria for propriety.
And some maintained that divestment, which both Summers and Verba suggested may exist outside University interests, was not at all resigned to the public sphere alone.
Bois said that the economic interests contained within questions of divestment are very closely related to University interests.
“I believe that it is inside the interest of the University to make money or not,” he said. To his mind, investment in arms technology represented “war profiteering” by the University, Bois said.
Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby said that the Faculty would consider future discussion of divestment according to its discussion policies.
While Faculty speakers did not agree whether debates over divestment should be discussed at future faculty meetings, most concurred that questions of infringement on faculty and student intellectual liberty demanded the group’s attention.
“I personally don’t think that there’s a more important issue that a university could discuss right now,” Kirby told his colleagues. Rather than establishing a Faculty subcommittee focused on the issue, as a number of speakers suggested, Kirby recommended that the Faculty Committee itself monitor intellectual freedom at Harvard. The Faculty Council is the 18-member advisory body that discusses issues before they are brought to the full Faculty.
Some professors said that regulations of the PATRIOT Acts I and II threatened to limit their own work.
John Womack Jr., Bliss professor of Latin American history and economics, said that he had traded books with colleagues in Colombia who might have associations with terrorist organizations.
He said he feared that under post-Sept. 11 legislation, his literary exchanges could be misconstrued as domestic terrorism.
He also said he was afraid he stood to be accused of complicity if his scholarly works were to be espoused by revolutionary groups, as was the case in a 1994 Latin American coup.
“What if something I write were to be used by people who engage in violence?” he asked.
Jones Professor of Classical Greek Literature Gregory Nagy suggested that the United States, like classical Athens, traditionally operates as a democracy internally and an undemocratic power on the outside. He said that the nation’s exterior politics are beginning to pervade its interior through the PATRIOT Act and related legislation.
This dynamic, he said, is “ominously reminiscent of another time and place—I’m thinking of Germany in the 1930s.”
But Kenan Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield ’53 criticized the Faculty both for its allegations of intellectual rights infringement and what he described as a liberal bias.
“Civil liberties consist of principles and circumstances. We are at war,” he said. “In wartime, the government is our protector more than it is our enemy.”
Mansfield said that he agreed with Verba and Summers’ distinction between policies that affect the University and those that do not.
“President Summers wants to defend Harvard and Harvard’s academic freedom,” he said. “I think that is perfectly understandable and admirable.”
But Faculty members should not forget that three of the Sept. 11 hijackers entered the U.S. on student visas, he said.
“It’s clear that we have to tighten our security measures,” he said. “The danger is to the majority. It isn’t to the minority.”
Yet Boardman Professor of Fine Arts Irene Winter said post-Sept. 11 restrictions have affected the Harvard community deleteriously, describing one student who was forced to leave the College because his non-citizen parents were incarcerated under recent regulations.
She urged the University administration to ensure that students affected by governmental restrictions had access to the University’s legal resources.
Like the anonymous authors of the statement Thomas read, several members of the Faculty said pressure within the University did not allow them, their colleagues or their students to speak freely on these topics.
The University, Summers said, will do everything it can to ensure than no one’s voice is quashed. He said he plans to use the influence of the University to achieve this goal as much as possible, he said, and urged members of the Faculty to contact the General Counsel immediately if they perceive infringement on their intellectual freedom.
—Staff writer Nathan J. Heller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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