Victory at Harvard: University Stands Up for Rights of Controversial Professor

By on September 22, 2011

While Harvard has been the target of much deserved criticism of late due to its stumbles with the new "Class of 2015 Freshman Pledge" pressuring students to commit to vague notions of "kindness" as well as "inclusiveness and civility," it has acquitted itself better in one recent situation where many students—on their own—have been pushing their own values to a fault. Against student pressure to fire him, Harvard has successfully defended free speech for economics instructor Subramanian Swamy, who published a controversial column in an Indian newspaper advocating drastic solutions to the issue of Islamic terrorism in India. Swamy’s ideas included a call to "[r]emove the masjid [mosque] in Kashi Vishwanath temple and the 300 masjids at other temple sites."

A petition (having 457 signatures as of this writing, including 68 Harvard undergraduates) calls on Harvard to "repudiate Swamy’s remarks and terminate his association with the University." The Harvard Crimson reported that Harvard Summer School Dean Donald Pfister said, "We will give this matter our serious attention." FIRE wrote to Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust, reminding her of Harvard’s duties to protect Swamy’s right to free speech.

Fortunately, it seems Harvard got the point this time. A spokesperson for the university was quick to release the following statement soon after the controversy broke:

It is central to the mission of a university to protect free speech, including that of Dr. Swamy and of those who disagree with him. We are ultimately stronger as a university when we maintain our commitment to the most basic freedoms that enable the robust exchange of ideas.

Given no further indication of any action taken against Swamy for the content of his column, we’re happy to declare this case closed, and commend Harvard for doing the right thing here. Contrary to what the signatories of the petition calling for his ouster apparently believe, there is plenty of room at Harvard for Swamy as well as his critics. The intellects gathered at the world’s most prestigious university can certainly handle any feelings that those who publicly, strongly disagree with them are being unkind or uncivil.

Yes, Harvard did change its mind about publicly displaying the names of the Harvard freshmen who had signed the pledge (after much criticism, not least from FIRE). Yet Dean of Freshman Thomas A. Dingman told the Crimson that "The really critical thing is to put out in very clear language that [freshmen] are joining a community that has expectations." What precisely these "expectations" are is anyone’s guess.

So, it’s not all hunky dory at Harvard for free speech—not by some distance. But Harvard’s principled stand in Swamy’s case sends a positive message to the community about taking their rights seriously. Hopefully Harvard will not forget this message when the next controversy hits.

Schools: Harvard University Cases: Harvard University: Professor Fired for Newspaper Column