Dean’s Handling of Harvard Law E-Mail Controversy Continues to Generate Criticism

By on May 10, 2010

Last week Adam commented on Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow’s denunciation of a student’s e-mail showing openness to the results of research about the role of genetics in differences in intelligence by race, pointing out that the dean’s denunciation was anti-intellectual

For the sake of human inquiry and knowledge a free university in a free society should not place any topic entirely out of bounds for discussion because an academic community, in human humility, does not really commit itself to declaring which view is true until we see the conclusive evidence. Even then, we must acknowledge that we may be wrong when new, unexpected evidence comes in.

In the May 17 issue of The Weekly Standard, Peter Berkowitz takes issue with Dean Minow similarly in an article titled, "Harvard Law vs. Free Inquiry: Dean Martha Minow flunks the test."

Unfortunately, the dean … reinforced the most common and serious prejudice at American universities today, which targets those who think, or who merely wish to examine critically, nonconforming or disfavored thoughts.

 

Dean Minow’s statement, moreover, failed to honor the scholar’s duty to restate accurately a view one is criticizing. According to Minow, the student’s email "suggested that black people are genetically inferior to white people." That’s an incendiary revision.

Berkowitz then explains the actual content of the student’s e-mail and its expression of an open attitude toward scientific data (explained in detail by Adam here). He describes Dean Minow’s mishandling of the situation (already commented upon at length by Eugene Volokh of The Volokh Conspiracy) and then suggests how this situation should have been handled instead:

In her statement to the Harvard Law School community, Dean Minow ought to have proclaimed that free speech on campus is very broad, that it is rooted in the freedom and equality of all human beings, and that its purpose is to protect the robust examination of ideas, including controversial ones, in order that the truth may emerge. She ought to have reminded students and faculty who cherish free inquiry that it is their responsibility to confront views that they deplore with better evidence and stronger arguments.

 

If Dean Minow’s principle that hurtful opinions must go unspoken and unexamined were taken seriously and applied impartially, then law schools and universities would be obliged to close down the dispassionate investigation of an enormous range of important public issues, from the morality, law, and politics of abortion, affirmative action, and same-sex marriage to the causes of the financial crisis; from the efficiency and justice of health care reform to the rules governing the detention, interrogation, and prosecution of enemy combatants; from Middle East politics to immigration.

 

And that’s no way to run a law school or a university.

Indeed. One would hope that Dean Minow’s law school is not simply a mouthpiece for Dean Minow’s opinions.    

Schools: Harvard University