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It normally takes just a few minutes. But last week’s approval of the Summer School course catalog—which still included controversial Indian politician Subramanian Swamy on the teaching roster when it first came up for a vote—launched a lengthy discussion that has since spawned a vocal debate in the international media.
Members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the largest school at Harvard, voted overwhelmingly at last Tuesday’s Faculty meeting to remove the two courses taught by Swamy at the Summer School.
The vote came in response to an article Swamy wrote in India in July, in which he advocated for the disenfranchisement of non-Hindus, destruction of hundreds of mosques in India, and the prohibition of conversion from Hinduism.
A majority of the Faculty at the meeting voted to remove Swamy’s classes, claiming that comments he made in the op-ed over the summer were an unacceptable incitement to violence against Muslims in India. But some professors are unsure what this decision might say about free expression at Harvard and question the precedent the decision sets for removing professors from the University based on their political views.
Diana L. Eck, a professor of comparative religion and a scholar of Indian studies, led the decision to remove Swamy from the teaching roster, but she said she did not intend to become the face of a movement against him.
Eck was one of forty faculty members who signed a letter to University President Drew G. Faust and Summer School Dean Donald H. Pfister requesting that Harvard reconsider its appointment of teachers who “detract from the reputation of the university.” The letter was drafted by Ajantha Subramanian, an associate professor of anthropology and social studies, one month after Swamy’s op-ed was first published in the Indian newspaper Daily News and Analysis.
“We’re not in the business of trying to publicly shame or disparage Subramanian Swamy,” Eck said in an interview Sunday. “I think many of us imagined that this would be taken up by the Economics Department, and they would quietly drop these courses or find someone else to teach them.”
According to economics professor Claudia Goldin, an executive council of the Economics Department did broach the subject, which “received a lot of airtime.” But she said that after “a very open and frank discussion,” the members decided to include Swamy’s two courses in the 2012 summer course catalog sent to the Faculty Council.
The Faculty Council—which sets the agenda for the monthly FAS Faculty meetings—reviewed a copy of Swamy’s op-ed and Subramanian’s letter. After nearly half an hour of debate, the council voted unanimously to approve the catalog as it stood.
One week later, the Faculty met to discuss and officially approve the catalog at the December Faculty meeting, but, according to Eck, faculty members did not receive a copy of the course listings. Eck said she saw the meeting agenda the night before the meeting and realized that Swamy’s courses were still included in the Summer School catalog that would come up for approval the next day.
After contacting several other signatories of Subramanian’s letter—none of whom were aware that Swamy’s courses were still on the list—Eck drafted an amendment proposing that FAS approve the course catalog with the exception of Economics S-110 and Economics S-1136, Swamy’s two courses.
“It was really within an hour of the meeting,” she said, adding that she informed the secretary of the Faculty ahead of time of her intention to present the amendment.
AN ISSUE OF FREE SPEECH
Many publications in India and political supporters of Swamy—who leads India’s Janata party—have spoken out about Harvard’s reaction to Swamy’s op-ed in recent days. And in Cambridge, professors have expressed concern about the potential ramifications of the Faculty vote, worrying that it might set a precedent for censoring free speech at Harvard.
Swamy publicly responded to the vote last Thursday, condemning Harvard’s decision as a “dangerous one.”
“The article was written for a Mumbai newspaper, and I teach economics in Harvard. I would assume that they would have sent their petition to me asking for my comments, which is a normal procedure. But they have not done that,” Swamy was quoted as saying in the Indian press.
Days after the Faculty meeting, professors are still discussing not whether they should have contacted Swamy but what their decision says about tolerance for opinionated speech at Harvard.
“If there were any form of speech that might provide a rationale for this kind of exclusion, it should not be political speech,” said Harry R. Lewis ’68, a computer science professor and Faculty Council member. “Political speech should be the most protected.”
He added, “It’s lawful to make a general urging that at some point people should go do something illegal and violent.”
Lewis said he was concerned about the precedent the Faculty vote might establish, saying that he feared that tenured professors might feel the need to watch their tongues to retain the right to teach their courses.
“If you can make an eloquent argument to persuade more than half of the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences, or to be precise, more than half of the faculty who show up to the meeting at which the catalog is approved, you can not only silence [any professor], you can take their whole academic agenda out of the catalog,” Lewis said.
He called the Faculty’s vote an “ad hominem” amendment directed against an individual instructor and said that he found the Faculty meeting a regrettable forum for the decision.
“I wish that the onus had fallen on the Economics Department, whichever way it came out, and less on FAS or Harvard as a whole,” Lewis said.
But Eck emphasized that although individual departments are responsible for proposing and vetting the courses in the Summer School Catalog, FAS is ultimately responsible for overseeing the entire catalog.
In particular, she expressed concern over Swamy because of the implications of his comments given India’s history of religious tension.
“This falls in a context of religiously inflamed politics in India,” Eck said. “To deliberately call for the removal ofthe mosque adjacent to Kashi Vishvanath temple in Varanasi and 300 other mosques built at temple sites in India is an incendiary statement in the Indian context and constitutes what many faculty members saw as an incitement to violence.”
Philosophy Department Chair Sean D. Kelly, who serves as vice chair of the Faculty Docket Committee, initially defended the Faculty Council’s unanimous vote to approve the catalog, with Swamy’s courses in it. But he switched his opinion at the Faculty meeting, writing in an email to The Crimson last week that he had been persuaded that Swamy’s op-ed “amounted to incitement of violence,” thus meriting its writer’s exclusion from the Summer School teaching staff.
Eck drew a distinction between Swamy’s affiliation to the University and that of a tenured professor. “If he were already a professor here and had gone through the promotion and tenure process of being vetted by a department, there would be a faculty process for review,” she said to The Crimson.
Lewis agreed, “He’s not a Harvard professor—he was here last summer, but it’s not like Harvard owes him a position from which to speak.”
Regardless, he wrote on his blog that had he been at the meeting, “I would have voted against the amendment.”
More Faculty members agreed with Eck: “I don’t think it is appropriate for an employee of the University, charged with teaching our students, to openly advocate the suspension of the human rights of millions of Indian citizens,” she said.
—Staff writer Radhika Jain can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Kevin J. Wu can be reached at email@example.com.
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