Qaddafi and Academic Freedom

            The current Business Week contains a story that highlights the fact that several of Harvard University’s most famous politics and public policy professors traveled to Libya during the U.S.-Libyan thaw in relations in the middle part of the last decade, when Qadaffi’s regime renounced terrorism and nuclear weapons, paid reparations to the Lockerbee bombing victims and resumed normal diplomatic ties with Washington. The professors journeyed to Tripoli under the aegis of a firm, the Monitor Group, created in 1983 by Michael Porter, one of their Business School colleagues, with five other entrepreneurs. That company had accepted a retainer of $3 million per year from the Libyan autocrat during this period, to develop a “sustained long-term program to ensure international understanding and appreciation of Libya.” This was, the weekly magazine rightly noted, nothing more or less than what many of Washington’s K Street firms are paid to do every day, and as such it is a commonplace in American advocacy politics. Except in this case some of the nation’s most prestigious intellectuals were provided travel and fees to go and chat with Qaddafi about direct and representative democracy and individual freedom, among other topics. All of this is more than odd in retrospect, considering Qaddafi’s recent tirades concerning killing all who dared defy him in the recent insurrection. But accepting these fees was certainly not illegal, and at least one of those involved, international politics scholar Joseph Nye, has vigorously defended his role and behavior. Meanwhile, Robert Putnam, of Bowling Alone, fame concluded after his first visit that the effort was a sham and refused a second invitation. He has publicly rued agreeing to an initial trip. Most of the Cambridge-based professors involved, however, have simply declined public comment.

            So that would seem to be that. The professors came and went and provided sage advice during a time a madman appeared to have changed course, and it is now clear he had not. A hopeful moment ends and is revealed as the well-paid and orchestrated artifice it was. And that would seem to be the end of it until one begins to reflect on how far personal academic freedom extends when it might entail negative consequences for one’s institution or for the academy writ large. On this point Business Week quotes a faculty meeting exchange between Harvard Computer Science professor Harry Lewis and University President Drew Faust on April 5, in which Lewis inquired, “Shouldn’t Harvard acknowledge embarrassment, and might you remind us that when we parlay our status as Harvard professors for personal profit, we can both hurt the university and all of its members?” The president responded, according to Business Week, by suggesting she supports such expressions of concern, but also endorses “the wide discretion of all of you in this room … to pursue the directions of academic inquiry you choose, and the outside activities and engagements you choose.”

            So, the president would seem to be saying to her colleagues, “Harvard cannot both police these issues and ensure your freedom to pursue inquiry where it takes you, but we would prefer you not taint the institution or the academy as you pursue such choices, please.” I find two things interesting about the exchange, even as I suspect Faust was correct to respond as she did. First, it reveals starkly just who ultimately controls the nation’s universities for good and ill, and it is their professoriate and not administrators. The latter cannot go where their professors will not venture of their own volition, nor prevent them from taking paths they might otherwise wish they would have avoided, at least when academic freedom is involved. Faust was, it might be said, stating the obvious. Nonetheless, even if that must be so to secure the possibility of unfettered exploration of ideas, Faust and Lewis were correct to point up how important the implications of individual faculty ethical decisions can be.

            Each of those who ventured to Tripoli made choices and each has tainted his academic reputation, that of Harvard and that of the academy more broadly, not so much perhaps by what each did as by how those actions now are being perceived. Each rationalized decisions to accept Monitor’s fees. In retrospect, these choices were inapt at best, even though they occurred during a time in which change in Libya seemed afoot. The lesson here is not that Harvard (or any university) could or should choose for its professors, but that faculty members, at Harvard or elsewhere, must recall the large burden they necessarily shoulder as they make such ethical decisions and act accordingly. This case reveals the individual ethical responsibility of faculty members can be quite large, but it cannot be avoided and it should not be rationalized away. One need not imagine these professors accepted these opportunities simply for the travel or fees involved. In fact, most seem genuinely to have hoped they could assist in some material way. Nonetheless, such choices will have consequences and not merely for those directly involved, and the burden of those decisions falls squarely on the scholars making them. Those offered such opportunities must bear that fact firmly in mind.