By Harvey Silverglate at WGBH News
University administrators walk a fine line between placating their politically-correct academic constituencies as well as their big-dollar alumni and donors. Consequently, it is a rare institution that espouses a clear and consistent message. But the electronic age is making it harder for blatant pandering to go undetected, as Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow is likely to learn.
Dean Minow published a co-authored (with Michael McConnell, director of the Stanford Constitutional Law Center) opinion piece that appeared in The Boston Globe on the morning of Harvard’s Commencement, a day when many important Harvard supporters converge on Cambridge for a day of pomp and circumstance. In her op-ed, Dean Minow argues in favor of extending the utmost tolerance to both sides of the religious wars between traditionalists and progressives in such areas as gay marriage, commercial contracts, and public life. Regardless of who “wins” or “loses” these wars, the dean writes,“the biggest losers are the entire nation if we descend into intolerance.” We would betray, she says, “the admirable American promise of respect for dissent – including vigorous protection for freedom of expression even when that expression can be offensive or troubling.”
Minow’s lofty rhetoric of freedom and tolerance for dissent certainly sounds nice, but anyone capable of conducting a Google search can see how empty these words really are.
In April 2012, a third year law student had dinner with some classmates, during which the hot-button issue of race and intelligence arose. When the student returned to her room, she had some further thoughts that she emailed to the dinner participants. She noted that while she was hopeful that there was no correlation between race and intelligence, she could “not rule out the possibility that African Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent.” Certain genetic differences do exist between ethnic groups, she argued, and “it is bad science to disagree with a conclusion in your heart, and then try (unsuccessfully, so far at least) to find data that will confirm what you want to be true.” The student’s abstract point – that what is unprovable cannot be declared unequivocally true – is hardly a controversial one. But coupled with the sensitive topic of race, it was explosive.
A recipient of this email forwarded it to others, and a copy eventually landed on the desk of Dean Minow. We do not know the details of whatever conversation ensued between the dean and the “offending” law student, but we can surmise. Very shortly thereafter, the student sent a communication to the Black Law Students Association, expressing her deep sorrow “for the pain caused by my email” and for the unintended “harm that has ensued.” She assured her audience that she does “not believe that African Americans are genetically inferior in any way” and apologized for giving offense by suggesting even that it was an open question.
Dean Minow, in turn, sent her own email message to the Harvard Law School community in what was obviously a well-orchestrated pas-de-deux between student and dean. “I am writing this morning to address an email message in which one of our students suggested that black people are genetically inferior to white people,” wrote Minow in an obvious mischaracterization of the student’s words and intent. “We encourage freedom of expression,” noted Minow, “but freedom of speech should be accompanied by responsibility” since “this is a community dedicated to intellectual pursuit and social justice.” “The school,” and “the overwhelming majority of the members of this community,” assured the dean, do not reflect the views of the one student who dared to dissent or even voice doubts.
Dean Minow reminded all that the Harvard Law community was “dedicated to fairness and justice” and “committed to preventing degradation of any individual or group, including race-based insensitivity or hostility.” She said nothing about the academic freedom of a student to call for scientific research on a contentious subject. Minow did, however, express the importance of exposing “false views,” such as the one penned in a private email. The dean concluded by saying she was “heartened to see the apology written by the student who authored the email, and to see her acknowledge the offense and hurt that the comment engendered.”
Dean Minow’s response to the email controversy in 2012 seems wholly inconsistent with the views she espoused in the Globe on Commencement Day. But today’s academy – beset by speech codes, sensitivity training for incoming students, and punishments for those who do not adequately revere “diversity and inclusion” – is no stranger to hypocrisy. Minow is happy to wax poetic on the theoretical values of individual freedom and tolerance. But she is unwilling to uphold those values in real-life controversial situations.
The sad truth is this: University administrators often don’t mean what they say, much less practice what they preach. Before donors shell out millions to Harvard in this next academic year, I urge them to do their research—not simply take the institution, or its officers or public relations flacks, at their word.
Schools: Harvard University