Globe Editorial

Yes, Harvard chief should scold profs who worked for Khadafys

April 11, 2011

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IF HARVARD Business School Professor Michael Porter and former Kennedy School Dean Joseph Nye taught at an academically excellent but off-the-beaten-path public college rather than an international behemoth like Harvard, would they have caught the attention of top figures in Moammar Khadafy’s regime? Not very likely. So despite their own fine skills, the academics involved with the Cambridge-based Monitor Group’s $250,000-per-month consulting deal with the Libyan government were trading, in part, on Harvard’s allure.

The arrangement arose when Khadafy’s son Seif contacted Porter, Monitor’s founder. The company brought in Nye and other big-name academics who gave advice and speeches in exchange for consulting fees. But when former dean Harry Lewis confronted President Drew Faust about condemning Porter’s involvement in the deal as an embarrassment to the university, Faust demurred, saying she didn’t want to be Harvard’s “scold-in-chief.’’

Why not? The biggest flaw in Harvard’s governance — the first point mentioned by critics inside and outside the university — is that the sprawling campus is a collection of self-interested fiefdoms more than a cohesive institution. The price Harvard pays to attract so many academic top dogs is lax central governance, a hands-off reluctance to exert control over those who practice under its giant umbrella.

So while Harvard zealously enforces its copyright protections, lest anyone outside the crimson universe try to steal its name, it shies away from interference with those who use its letterhead. This is a weakness, not a strength. Like any institution of higher learning, Harvard needs to zealously protect the freedom of speech and expression of those in its community. But it shouldn’t be afraid to draw some sharp lines to prevent violations of human rights. That was the spirit behind its decision to divest itself of holdings in companies doing business with South Africa’s apartheid regime in the 1980s, and its refusal to allow the military to recruit on campus so long as it didn’t accept openly gay soldiers.

Faust supported the recruiting ban, and validated its impact by inviting the military back on campus after it stopped discriminating against gays. But when it comes to the faculty, such strong values statements take on the coloring of “scoldings.’’ Instead of heeding Lewis’s call to condemn those who worked for Khadafy, Faust offered the faculty a long, thoughtful statement about the need “to be sensitive and self-reflective about our engagements.’’ In other words, do only what you’re comfortable doing. That’s good advice for life, but a weak standard for an institution of global leadership.