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The Real 'Peretz' Problem

By Jim Sleeper

Many at Harvard—and now, around the world—are misconstruing what's really at stake in whether the Standing Committee on Social Studies accepts a research fund in the name of “New Republic” editor-in-chief and long-time Harvard donor and instructor Martin H. Peretz.

What's at stake is not Peretz's First Amendment right to say things about Muslims that even he admits were wrong. Nor does it matter whether his apology was sincere. Harvard has been through bigotry-cleansing rituals many times, but diehard defenders of former president Lawrence H. Summers are wrong to claim that the Harvard Corporation ousted him only because a politically correct faculty was outraged by his insensitivity to African-Americans and women.

Nor is this really about left versus right. The columnist David Brooks noted cutely in 2002, "American society has decided to warehouse its radical lunatics on university campuses in specialized departments that operate as nunneries for the perpetually alienated." But now it’s failed, aging, neo-con fellow-travelers, disgraced by their own blunders in foreign policy and other realms, who are craving academic honors and scurrying into lavishly funded nunneries the likes of which few leftists ever enjoy.

What’s truly at stake, and not only at Harvard, is the defense of liberal education against subtle degradation by college administrators’ and donors’ increasing bestowals of quasi-academic distinction upon people who've bought or wormed their ways into campus sinecures for questionable personal and political reasons, as Peretz has done.

He has already endowed a Martin Peretz Chair in Yiddish Literature in his own name, and that is enough. There are excellent, even urgent, reasons why donors should be recognized only by name and otherwise unheard, in a university’s life.

Yet liberal education, beleaguered ideologically and financially, is seeing an explosion of purchased "scholarly” honors for interlopers: Yale’s “Studies in Grand Strategy Program” has commended to its undergraduates the likes of "Diplomat in Residence" Charles Hill, chief foreign-policy adviser to Rudy W. Giuliani's 2008 presidential campaign, even though Hill addresses students mainly as the foreign service officer he was until the Iran-Contra independent counsel made him a diplomat-in-exile him from Washington.

The Yale program has added John D. Negroponte, former Bush national intelligence director and Reagan Administration ambassador to Honduras when torture was American policy there. And now retired General Stanley A. McChrystal has signed on to teach undergraduates as well as graduates for several semesters at Yale's new Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.

What matters isn’t these men's unwise and perhaps revealing utterances—such as Peretz's against Muslims or McChrystal's against Obama -- but the creeping legitimizing of their pedagogy and what it portends for liberal education.

Colleges like Harvard and Yale do need to strike a delicate balance between humanist truth-seeking and republican power-wielding as they train national and global leaders through liberal education. They should make room for people with “real world” experience to teach one course a year, as I do at Yale and Peretz does at Harvard, as part of the campus mix, provided we meet the standards of a liberal education. But what we don’t deserve are academic honors and institutional power based on worldly presence and “connections” or wealth, not on scholarship.

Peretz is no more scholarly or subtle than Yale's Charles Hill and no less craving of the balm of scholarly credibility and prestige that neither of them has earned. Their student defenders and apologists may not understand fully what is being done to them here as students. Their student critics may over-emphasize specific instances of bigotry like Peretz's or past blunders like McChrystal's or Negroponte's.

To its credit, Yale's Grand Strategy program, stung or enlightened by criticism, has brought in the writer Jonathan E. Schell ’65 and the PBS economics correspondent Paul Solman to present understandings of power and wealth at odds with those posited and peddled by the program throughout the Bush years.

Harvard's Standing Committee on Social Studies has an easier task: not to let the power-and-money and public-relations virus infect its program via honoring Peretz, who has done nothing to deserve such a distinction. I'd go so far as to second the Massachusetts Bay Puritan minister Richard Mather, who said in 1657, "Imposters have but seldom got in and set up among us; and when they have done so, they have made a short blaze and gone out in a snuff."

So one might hope now, too. But these days liberal education and wise leadership, like Christianity and free markets, have a lot more noisy claimants and celebrants than they have true friends. A fund named for Peretz would cleanse neither him nor Harvard or its failures to get this balance right. It should be named instead for a distinguished educator such as Stanley Hoffman, Barrington Moore, or Nathan Glazer, not for an operator with political agendas who craves an academic distinction he’s never earned.

Jim Sleeper, EdD ’77, a lecturer in political science at Yale, taught Expository writing at Harvard in the mid-1970s and was a Shorenstein Fellow at the Kennedy School in 1998.

Editors' Note: This op-ed has been revised from its original version, which had referred incorrectly to Minh A. Luong, instructor in computer espionage and associate director of Yale University's "Studies in Grand Strategy Program."  In 2007, Mr. Luong received a doctorate in business administration from California Pacific University.  The Crimson has no evidence that he has claimed to have a Ph.D., nor that Yale University has questioned his credentials.  For several years, he served as the Forrest Mars, Sr. Visiting Professor of Ethics, Politics, and Economics at Yale. According to Mr. Luong and Yale's Public Information Office, he correctly identified himself as such publicly.

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