Harvard leader confronted on professor’s ties to Libya

“We are finding ourselves increasingly involved as individuals and as an institution with the world around us,” said Drew Faust, Harvard president. “We are finding ourselves increasingly involved as individuals and as an institution with the world around us,” said Drew Faust, Harvard president.
By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / April 6, 2011

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A prominent Harvard professor and former university administrator urged Harvard President Drew Faust during a faculty meeting yesterday to express “shame’’ on behalf of the university at the disclosure of financial ties between a senior academic and Libyan dictator Moammar Khadafy.

Saying nothing would send the wrong message to students, giving them the impression that personal financial gain could come at the expense of ethical conduct, said Harry Lewis, a computer science professor who formerly served as undergraduate dean.

“Shouldn’t Harvard acknowledge its embarrassment, and might you remind us that when we parlay our status as Harvard professors for personal profit, we can hurt both the university and all of its members?’’ Lewis asked Faust at the monthly gathering of the arts and sciences faculty.

Faculty meetings are closed to outside media, but Lewis provided the Globe a written transcript of his statement, which he sent to Faust several days ago.

Faust — who, according to Lewis, told him she did not want to be “scold in chief’’ — said she supports the wide discretion of faculty members to pursue the directions of academic inquiry and outside engagements they choose. Those activities, though, should be subject to the norms reflected in university policies, “always with the hope that each of us will exercise our privileges as faculty members in thoughtful and responsible ways,’’ according to a written copy of her statement released by her office.

“We are finding ourselves increasingly involved as individuals and as an institution with the world around us,’’ Faust told the faculty. “This is a good thing. But it also presents us with challenging choices about how that engagement can best be shaped to advance our mission of producing knowledge and contributing to a better world. These interactions require us all to be sensitive and self-reflective about our engagements.’’

Harvard has recently reexamined its conflict-of-interest principles, which each school in the university is now in the process of incorporating into concrete policies for specific fields of study, Faust said.

Until yesterday, Harvard officials had not commented on reports by the Globe and other news media about the activities of Monitor Group, a Cambridge-based consulting firm founded by Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter, along with several others who have ties to Harvard. Mark Fuller, a cofounder and current chief executive, was an assistant professor at Harvard’s business school, while cofounder Joseph Fuller graduated from the business school and collaborates with Porter on research.

Monitor’s activities raise questions about the line between academic research and advocacy. Porter, who is not involved in the day-to-day management of Monitor, had helped the company get a contract with Libya worth more than $3 million to consult on political and economic reforms.

In 2006, Porter, acting as a Monitor consultant, prepared a report for the Libyan government characterizing the country as being at “the dawn of a new era,’’ according to documents posted on the website for the Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness at Harvard Business School.

Lewis criticized Porter for touting Khadafy’s Libya as a “popular democracy system’’ in the documents.

The documents also said that “direct democracy allows Libyans to contribute in the decision-making process,’’ despite a democracy index published in the Economist magazine that listed Libya as 161st out of 167 nations in 2006, just above such totalitarian regimes as Myanmar and North Korea.

Porter said in an earlier interview with the Globe that he eventually quit his work in Libya when he realized that Khadafy was not serious about reform. Monitor continued to work in Libya, receiving $250,000 a month from the government from 2006-2008.

“To put it simply, a tyrant wanted a crimson-tinged report that he was running a democracy, and for a price, a Harvard expert obliged in spite of abundant evidence to the contrary,’’ said Lewis. He singled out Porter, whom he has never met, in his comments during the meeting because, he said, he does not know whether others associated with Harvard did anything wrong.

“Attacking a colleague is not a collegial thing to do,’’ Lewis said in an interview following the meeting. “But I felt it was important to make a statement and ask a question about the values of the university, because it seems to me that human freedom and democratic process are about as basic to the values of the university as you could get.’’

Porter could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Monitor released a statement on its website on March 24, following reports about its connections to Khadafy, that it is in the midst of conducting an internal investigation of its work in Libya, a country now embroiled in a civil war.

“Given the terrible spectacle of [Khadafy] using force on his own people, it may be difficult to imagine that just a few years ago many saw a period of promise in Libya,’’ the statement read. “We regret that this period of promise was so short-lived. We also regret that during the course of our work we did make some errors in judgment, which we have acknowledged and have vowed not to repeat.’’

This is not the first time that Harvard has been embarrassed by its professors’ money-making activities, Lewis said at yesterday’s meeting.

“A few years ago, another economist dishonored the university by exploiting his Harvard status for personal profit in Russia,’’ Lewis told Faust and his colleagues. “The Harvard name remains malodorous in Moscow, I understand.’’

In 2004, a federal judge ruled that star Harvard economist Andrei Shleifer had conspired to defraud the US government by making personal investments in Russia that conflicted with his government consulting contract to advise Russia.

The case was settled after Harvard agreed to pay the government $26.5 million and Shleifer agreed to pay $2 million.

The university also stripped Shleifer, who never admitted to any wrongdoing, of his honorary academic title, though he remains a tenured professor.

While Porter may not have broken any laws or university rules, Lewis said, “taking money to support a tyranny by dubbing it a democracy is wrong.’’

“Students learn what is right and wrong from their professors’ conduct outside the ivied walls . . . and from Harvard’s silent acceptance of their behavior,’’ Lewis said.

He said that Harvard has a right to express its pride at the many accomplishments of its faculty and students, but that it should be prepared to bow its head in shame when a faculty member does something disgraceful.

“We can’t keep having these economists go off to foreign countries and fill their pockets and create these huge embarrassments for the university,’’ Lewis said in the interview.

Farah Stockman of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Tracy Jan can be reached at