Making Harvard “Safe” for the World’s Most Pampered Faculty

By Harvey Silverglate

            H. L. Mencken, late in life, allowed himself to be interviewed by a young reporter from his hometown newspaper. The interviewer asked the grand old curmudgeon, "why, if you find so much that is unworthy of reverence in the United States, do you continue to live here?" Mencken answered the query with another question: “Why do people visit zoos?” Well, living right smack in the middle of the zoo that Harvard has become in its dotage, I now understand Mencken’s reasoning perfectly.

            The latest head-shaking Harvard story is that anthropology professor J. Lorand Matory introduced a one-sentence resolution at a faculty meeting stating that “this Faculty commits itself to fostering civil dialogue in which people with a broad range of perspectives feel safe and are encouraged to express their reasoned and evidence-based ideas.” Professor Matory, according to the Harvard Crimson, “has claimed that critics of Israel, like himself, ‘tremble in fear’ of repercussions for their views.”

            As a pretty close student of the goings-on at Harvard (I’m a graduate of the Law School, a long-time affiliate at one of the Harvard undergraduate houses, and I lecture at least a couple of times each semester at one or another Harvard Law School class), I have to say that the only faculty member I know who actually did suffer for his views on Israel was Lawrence Summers, who happened to be the university president at the time he gave a speech positing a possible link between animosity toward Israel and anti-Semitism or the appearance of anti-Semitism. That speech, plus another unpopular speech supporting the ROTC program, which Harvard's faculty stripped of university funding in 1995, capped off by Summers’ infamous musing on women’s suitability for careers in science made Summers sufficiently vulnerable so that a no-confidence resolution introduced by none other than Professor Matory caused Harvard’s governing body to vote “no confidence” in Summers, resulting in his resignation in February 2006. And so it was a bit ironic to have Matory, a leader of the faculty rebellion that forced Summers out for his unpopular and politically incorrect views on hot-button topics, claim that he felt “unsafe” for espousing his views on the campus. Presumably, had Harvard truly dedicated itself to a culture that fostered “civil dialogue in which people with a broad range of perspectives feel safe and are encouraged to express their reasoned and evidence-based ideas,” Summers would still be Harvard’s president.

            But I suppose that my disgust over the Harvard faculty’s intolerance for views with which it disagrees -- and Matory surely is not in the camp that has to worry about being “unsafe” – is matched by my amusement over the notion that tenured faculty members, especially those adhering to the politically correct fashions of the day, are somehow “unsafe.” That faculty, as Summers learned the hard way, is perhaps the most pampered tenured faculty in the nation. Harvard has become infamous, for example, for the paucity of full professors who actually teach undergraduates. They are so pampered, in fact, that it is notoriously difficult to get them even to attend faculty meetings, unless, of course, they are about to vote no-confidence in a president who expresses his views too bluntly. Indeed, the reason the Matory resolution was not brought to a vote was that it takes one-sixth of the faculty present to conduct an official vote, and attendance at the meeting fell just short of that very modest quorum.

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