‘Harvard Law Record’ Discusses Individual Rights with Harvard Board of Overseers Candidates

February 19, 2009

The Harvard Law Record has published a very good interview with Harvey Silverglate, FIRE’s co-founder and Chairman of FIRE’s Board of Directorsand petition candidate for Harvard University’s Board of Overseersand with petition candidate Robert Freedman. Of course, Harvey and Bob have a lot to say about Harvard in addition to discussing free speech and due process, but here are some excerpts of interest to Torch readers:

You have described the Administrative Board [Harvard’s student disciplinary body] as "one of the worst, if not the worst, student disciplinary tribunal in the country." What will you do to change the way the Board functions?

HS: The Harvard lawyers tell me the Administrative Board is an educational experience. I say, yeah, just like a hanging. And I’ve never seen a proceeding as irrational, as uninterested in facts and truth.

How are you qualified to speak about the issues facing HLS [Harvard Law School] and the University community at large?

HS: I actually know more about what goes about on the Administrative Board than most students do…and I have great sources of information. I am confident that I know more about how Harvard works than just about any member of the current Board of Overseers and that is because I don’t depend on the Administration giving me a packet five times a year to tell me how the place works…Once I get on the Board, I’ll be in an even better position to learn how Harvard works, because right now Harvard stonewalls me a lot when I represent students.

What do you say to people who view the condemnation of certain speech, like the parody of Mary Jo Frug’s work in 1992, as less about censorship than about civility and respect for others?

HS: Number one, a certain amount of discomfort is part of living in a free society. The First Amendment and academic freedom made that choice. When those principles are diluted, they just decay. Number two…students, left to their own devices in terms of their conversations with one another and in class, by and large develop their own civility codes. The notion that students need codes…in order to not kill each other is a figment of administrator’s imagination. It is a fraud they’ve perpetrated on the outside world in order to hire yet another administrator.

RF: People who promote speech codes think we have to enforce civility, but it does not work. When you try to enforce civility, incivility will come in through the back door. The way to do it is to let people say things they want to say. The speech codes are counterproductive…The whole point of the academic world is that people can speak freely. That is the whole point of tenure.


What is the "corporatization" of Harvard, as you’ve described it?

HS: The very fact that you cannot get beyond the PR office…tells you there is something wrong. They are acting more like a corporation than a University and they cannot defend what they are doing…Now Universities are run by principles of risk reduction. You don’t do anything that is likely to have something sue you, embarrass you, question you. You cannot run a University and not risk having people be upset about what’s going on and what students say to each other…Business corporations have a duty to their shareholders not to lose money. Universities have a different obligation and they have lost sight of that obligation: the pursuit of truth…

What led to the "corporatization" of Academia?

RF: A lot of organizations in the country have become a lot more bureaucratic. There are a lot more administrators who are not on the front lines teaching and grading papers…When you get a lot of administrators, they think the work they do is really crucial…but it isn’t. It is totally secondary…It’s not because they are bad people. It is the system.

HS: In the 1980s, University administrators decided that they had to do something to reign in students. Now mind you, the anti-war fever had passed by then, but somehow administrators are always fighting the last war and they decided that they had to crack down.

I represented a group of undergraduates charged with harassment of Dean Ernest May [now the Charles Warren Professor of American History]. Ernest May was a consultant to the Department of Defense…and students organized so that in the morning, there would be three students following him chanting "murderer, murderer," all the way to his office or classroom. 24 hours a day they organized…Alan Dershowitz and I represented the students at the Ad Board. We argued that it was free speech. The students followed him closely but they kept a respectful distance. We convinced the Administrative Board that this was protected activity.

This would never happen today. The definition of harassment has now become so broad and covers so much protected activity that you wouldn’t have a prayer to win a case like that. Today, the Ad Board does not allow law professors to appear before the Administrative Board.

Schools:  Harvard University