In today’s extremely politicized university environment, college presidents and deans have difficult choices to make. Should they condemn racism, sexism, homophobia, antisemitism, and other evils?
If they do, where should they draw lines?
And how should they define these evils in the face of conflicting demands from students, alumni, faculty, and other members of their broad community?
This daunting question recently confronted Harvard President Lawrence Bacow.
Bacow is a deeply principled person, a defender of freedom of speech, and someone who has strong personal views on many of these issues.
He is now the subject of criticism, including from me, for not speaking out against a blatantly anti-Semitic op-ed written by the editors of the Harvard Crimson.
The former president of Harvard, Lawrence Summers, has aptly characterized the one-sided Crimson screed as antisemitic in intent as well as in effect.
I agree and so do many other members of the Harvard community.
President Bacow, while proclaiming that academic boycotts are inconsistent with Harvard’s values, refused to condemn the Crimson editorial.
This is what he said in part, "First let me say that I will not comment on the Crimson editorial. The Crimson is a student newspaper. It is independent of the university, and I think it is fair to say, the Crimson does not represent, or certainly the editorial board does not represent, the views of the university.
"The Crimson editorial board represents the views of the Crimson editorial board. We believe in a free press. They are entitled to publish what they wish and to share their views as they may."
Anyone who reads the entire statement made by President Bacow will almost certainly understand that it was not intended to be a substantive endorsement of the Crimson editorial.
To the contrary, it’s not-so-subtle message is one of disagreement, without expressly getting into the business of commenting on the content of a specific editorial that does not purport to speak on behalf of Harvard University.
This is part of a delicate balancing act that universities, and their presidents, must consistently perform. Although the Crimson is an independent newspaper that does not speak on behalf of Harvard, it uses Harvard’s good name and it's run by its students.
Many in the public perceive it as being closely associated with Harvard, and it is important to remind the world, as President Bacow did, that the Crimson does not speak for the institution, despite its name and the status of its editors.
Recall that during the rise of Nazism in Germany, the Harvard Crimson supported granting an honorary doctorate to Hitler’s spokesperson.
In that case, the Crimson may well have spoken for the University, whose President James Bryant Conant, was an admirer of Hitler and of Nazi Germany and whose faculty and student body were subject to anti-Jewish ceilings.
There was little objection to the Crimson’s pro-Nazi editorial, just as there was little objection to many other Crimson editorials over the years that justified Harvard’s racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and bigotry.
Today, even with growing anti-Semitism on campuses globally, the Harvard Crimson has gone further than most, subtly invoking the canard of Jewish "power" and by advocating BDS suggesting that it supports a "free" Palestine from the river to the sea, which means the end of Israel.
The time has come — indeed, it is long past — for Harvard to demand that its copyrighted and trademarked name "Harvard" be removed from the Crimson.
If the Crimson were editorializing today in favor of Nazism, the KKK or other bigoted ideologies, there would be a demand to eliminate any confusion by requiring the Crimson to drop the name Harvard from its masthead. It can call itself the "Cambridge Crimson," even though that too, associates it with Harvard’s famous color.
It would not, however, imply, as much as the name Harvard does, an association between the university and the newspaper’s bigoted content.
Denying the Crimson the right to use the name Harvard would lend support to President Bacow’s correct claim that the newspaper does not reflect the views of the University.
As long as the Crimson continues to bear the name Harvard, its bigoted views will be associated by many around the world with Harvard’s views, and the pressure on its president to condemn these views will persist.
Nobody asks the presidents of universities to condemn or disassociate themselves from views expressed by organizations that do not bear Harvard’s name.
It is only because it proclaims itself as the Harvard Crimson do people demand that Harvard University condemn its bigotry.
So let the antisemitic views of the Crimson complete in the marketplace of ideas without the advantage of misusing Harvard’s good name. That will allow its president to decline to comment on its content without creating confusion about any association with Harvard.
This will not solve the larger problem of some faculty members, clinics, students, and groups that do not speak for Harvard, using its name to legitimate views that do not represent the university.
But it will go a long way toward striking an appropriate balance between freedom of expression and the misuse of institutional names to legitimate bigotry.
Nor should this be seen as a punishment of the Crimson for this specific editorial.
This editorial and others should stimulate a reconsideration of Harvard’s overall policy with regard to the use of its name in promoting highly divisive views that do not reflect the positions of the university.
In this respect it would be somewhat analogous to reviews now being conducted with regard to the names on buildings and other university venues.
If Harvard does not want to be associated with the names of bigots of the past, it should not want its name to be associated with bigots of the present.
Alan M. Dershowitz is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law Emeritus at Harvard Law School and and the author most recently of "The Case for Color Blind Equality in the Age of Identity Politics," and "The Case for Vaccine Mandates," Hot Books (2021). Read more of Alan Dershowitz''s reports — Here.
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