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Peretz Faces Dual Legacy

While students remember him fondly, comments go unforgotten

Illustration of Martin "Marty" Peretz
Illustration of Martin "Marty" Peretz
By Barbara B. Depena, Crimson Staff Writer

Stuart A. Levey ’85 says that in his frequent visits to the Coffee Connection—a coffee joint in the Garage and a staple in the Harvard community—there was always a familiar face.

Harvard lecturer Martin “Marty” H. Peretz made his home at a corner table, where it seemed like he was always surrounded by students.

Levey says Peretz, his undergraduate thesis adviser, preferred the cafe’s palpable exchange of ideas to his confined university office.

“That was where he would stay and hold court,” Levey says.

Levey, who wrote his thesis on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, remembers Peretz as a “warm” adviser who encouraged his personal interest in the region.

“He was unusual among faculty members in his interest in mentoring and getting to know students,” he says.

But in September, some members of the Harvard community protested against Harvard’s relation to a professor known for his controversial viewpoints.

The Committee on Degrees in Social Studies was to mark its 50th anniversary with a speech from Peretz and the establishment of a $650,000 fund for student research in his name.

Yet just weeks before, Peretz published a blog post that included a declaration that Muslims should not be extended First Amendment privileges and that “Muslim life is cheap.” Critics said that these most recent comments form part of a 30-year history of issuing hateful language towards blacks, Latinos, Arabs, and Muslims.

Following days of public opposition across campus, Peretz was removed from the list of speakers. But the committee still recognized Peretz among past leaders in Social Studies and accepted the fund in his name.

Widely criticized for his inflammatory comments, Peretz is fiercely defended by loyal colleagues and former students who continue to commend him for his dedication to Harvard and the world of academia.

A CONTROVERSIAL MENTOR

One classmate of his at Brandeis University remembers Peretz’s attempts to build connections with professors.

“He was always just pure ambition,” Harvey Pressman says. “A smart kid, but not someone that you would want as a friend.”

Peretz graduated from Bronx High School of Science in 1955. Following his undergraduate days at Brandeis, Peretz crossed the Charles and set himself to his goal of prospering in academia.

At Harvard, he received a Masters in 1965 and completed his doctoral thesis in government a year later to obtain his Ph.D. The University recognized his enthusiasm, retaining him as a lecturer in the recently-established but selective Social Studies concentration where he would serve as head tutor between 1967 and 1971.

In his academic role and his subsequent position as South House Master, former South House Committee Co-President Nancy E. Toff ’76 says that Peretz developed close relationships with his students.

“He always had a coterie around him,” she says. “It was an intellectual coterie, however, and mostly consisted of students within the Social Studies department.”

According to some of these students, Peretz was a decisive influence on their intellectual pursuits and career paths.

MIT Professor Sherry R. Turkle ’69 says she embarked on her initial research following Peretz’s encouragement. He told her that the her seemingly esoteric interest in French scholars’ indifference towards Freudian theory could in fact lead to a compelling senior thesis.

“Dr. Peretz was a great teacher and gave me confidence in my abilities at a time when I needed that,” she says. “He encouraged me to have confidence in myself and to become an academic when this seemed to me to be a great reach.”

Peretz left Harvard in 1975 to head up The New Republic, a political magazine that he had purchased a year earlier. He would remain there as editor-in-chief through 2010, helping mold the magazine’s liberal slant and hawkish approach to American foreign policy.

But Peretz all the while retained his ties to the University and, in 1993, he contributed to the establishment of the Martin Peretz Chair in Yiddish Literature.

E. J. Dionne ’73, a former student of Peretz’s, says that the professor’s unique capacity to engage with his students led to the support for him that endures despite his controversial statements.

“Many of us wish Marty had not written some of the things he wrote and we told him that,” Dionne says. “But for me at least—and I know lots of others who feel this way—it was simply impossible to forget, ignore, or write off Marty’s passion for his students, his eagerness to help us, how much energy he put into his teaching, and how he stayed connected to people after they graduated.”

CONFLICTING LEGACIES

The clash between his dueling legacies came to the forefront in the days leading up to the Social Studies celebration in September.

Turkle and Dionne had joined 43 others, including former Vice President Al Gore ’69, in soliciting support for the $650,000 Martin Peretz Undergraduate Research Fund. The fund was in honor of “an inspiring teacher, mentor, and scholar who was an architect and steward of the Social Studies program from the 1960s through the early 1990s.”

Primarily devoted to juniors pursuing thesis research, the fund gives priority to social or political theorists and those studying either multiculturalism, social justice, or inequality.

But when word of the fund spread, many said that, given Peretz’s history of controversial views, the University was sending the wrong message in accepting the fund.

Leading up to the conference, a five-day debate erupted in which over 550 people—including Social Studies concentrators, alumni, graduate students, and staff members as well as presidents of student support groups—petitioned against accepting the fund.

The Undergraduate Council condemned the University’s decision to accept the funds with a vote of 26-7-4.

“This is about the University decision-making going against the grain of its stated values and objectives, and this decision has affected all of us negatively,” says Maryam M. Gharavi, a doctoral student in comparative literature who participated in the protests.

The protesters said that the academic pursuits that would be financed by the fund would be overshadowed by Peretz’s extremist views and would only advance his derogatory statements.

“They’re essentially expressing to the University community and the world that Peretz’s racist agenda forever linked to this award ... will nonetheless be carried forward,” Gharavi said.

Director of Studies Anya Bernstein announced in April that fund recipients would remain anonymous. Those students can report their association with the umbrella Harvard College Research Program funding source rather than the Peretz fund.

“It suggests that the department and the University have something to hide. So much for academic freedom and transparency if they allow shady donors to dictate research agendas,” says Sam L. Sternin ’01, who helped organize the alumni petition and letter-writing campaign online.

“They should just rename the fund or return the money and save themselves the embarrassment and shame that this secret award bears.”

—Staff writer Barbara B. DePena can be reached at barbara.b.depena@college.harvard.edu.

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Social Sciences DivisionFundraisingHAAYear in ReviewCommencement 2011