Harvard’s Ethical Dilemmas

BY RICHARD CRAVATTS

There was a certain moral irony that in December at Harvard two situations arose in the university’s hunt for funding. Fundraising, of course, is the lifeblood of higher education – even for Harvard University, which, given an endowment of some $25.9 billion, should have the luxury of being selective in where and to whom it makes its entreaties for donor largesse. But the search goes on continually, both from private and public sources.

In the first incident, Harvard was one of group of 14 law schools, known collectively as the Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights, Inc. (FAIR), who went before the Supreme Court to contest what is known as the Solomon Amendment, a provision that gives the government the option of refusing federal funding to universities which deny on-campus access to military recruiters seeking to hire some 400 new judge advocate generals each year. The law school plaintiffs in this case – including Harvard – argued that they had long-existing policies of denying recruiting privileges to employers who discriminate against employees based on race, creed, and – most importantly in this case – sexual orientation. Given the military’s current policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” in relation to gays being excluded from the armed forces, the complaining law schools asserted that the military recruiters, since they knowingly and openly violated the long-held anti-discrimination precepts of the schools, would not be welcomed guests at recruitment events. That is all well and good, save for one minor detail: while Harvard Law School wanted to deny the military’s ability to recruit the best and brightest from their campus, they did not, understandably, wish to forgo, nor did they believe they should have to lose, the roughly $400 million that Harvard receives yearly in federal funds. But withholding federal funding from schools barring military recruiters was precisely the option the amendment granted to the government. “[T]ell recipients of Federal money at colleges and universities that if you do not like the Armed Forces, if you do not like its policies, that is fine,” said Representative Gerald Solomon of New York in 1994 when the law was written. “That is your [F]irst [A]mendment right. But do not expect Federal dollars to support your interference with our military recruiters.”

In the same weeks that Harvard waited for Court’s response to the FAIR appeal, good fortune smiled on the institution with the announcement of a $20 million gift from Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, with the expressed purpose, in his own words, to “bridge the gap between East and West, between Christianity and Islam, and between Saudi Arabia and the United States.” The Prince, reputed to be the world’s fifth richest man and chairman of the Riyadh-based Kingdom Holding Co., has been intent on “bridging the gap” for some time now; he was, it will be remembered, the same individual whose intended $10 million gift to families of 9/11 victims was returned by then-Mayor Giuliani after the Prince off-handedly mentioned that the U.S. had to “reexamine its policies in the Middle East and adopt a more balanced stance toward the Palestinian cause . . . Our Palestinian brethren continue to be slaughtered at the hands of Israelis while the world turns the other cheek.”

Lest anyone doubt on what side of Palestinian-Israeli debate Alwaleed comes down on, one could point to yet another donation he made in 2002: during a government- sponsored, live-broadcast telethon for the benefit of Palestinian families of suicide bomber “martyr” which eventually raised $100 million, the Prince himself made a pledge of $27 million to help show Saudi support for the Palestinian cause.

But politics aside, the more thorny ethical issue for Harvard is how to justify taking a major gift – and agreeing to set up an entire Middle East research center – from a donor who is a member of the ruling family of a repressive, totalitarian, sexist theocracy. For instance, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that the Law School could not abide on the part of the military is clearly a useful, and necessary, tactic in Saudi Arabia: in the Prince’s homeland, homosexuality is a capital crime and accused homosexuals have not only been shunned but have been beheaded. Since Sharia law allows punishment for “deviant sexual behavior” that ranges from imprisonment and flogging to death, other cases, including the conviction by a Jeddah court of alleged transvestites, have resulted in thirty-one men suffering 200 lashes each and multi-month prison terms. Four other men in the incident received two years’ imprisonment and 2,000 lashes.

Another characteristic of the Prince’s totalitarian Saudi society, one that should offend Harvard’s commitment to academic inquiry and free expression, is a virtual ban on any “non-conforming” speech on the part of teachers; in Saudi Arabia, apostasy is also a capital offense, and teachers who question religious dogma are at risk. This past November, for example, a high school chemistry teacher received 750 lashes and over three years in prison from a Saudi court for engaging students in discussions about Christianity, Judaism and terrorism. Similarly, in 2004 a Riyadh court permanently banned one Muhammad al-Sahimi from teaching; he received three years in prison and 300 lashes for “endorsing allegedly un-Islamic sexual, social and religious practices.”

Many will remember the near universal opprobrium Harvard president, Lawrence Summers, found directed at him after his informal remarks in January 2004 that suggested that the absence of women from science faculties might be linked to superior quantitative reasoning on the part of men. Many of Harvard’s highly-sensitized faculty, who went in a furor over Summer’s “unconscionable” remarks and whose scathing criticism forced a contrite Summers to set up a $50 million diversity fund to attract more women faculty members, would be absolutely apoplectic over the complete repression of women in the Prince’s kingdom. There, women are not struggling for tenured spots on elite faculties; Saudi women have the dubious unique distinction of living in the only country where they still cannot vote, nor even drive. “They cannot travel abroad without permission from a male relative,” wrote John R. Bradley in Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crisis. (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/1403964335/ref=ase_johnrbradley-20/102-6401846-0149711) “Indeed, they cannot in many instances leave the house without a male relative acting as chaperone. Whole employment sectors are closed to them. . . Generally speaking, the rule is that women are hidden, constrained and repressed.”

The more serious issue for Harvard to consider, and one that goes to the very core of the purpose of Alwaleed’s gift, is: what is the intellectual intent of setting up the research center in the first place? Indeed, is this center, with a stated ambition of fostering “peace and tolerance” between East and West, part of continuing “educational” campaign that minimizes the defects of Saudi society and culture and promotes a sanitized, disingenuous view that ignores religious intolerance, a lack of pluralism, and homicidal religious fanaticism? One of the Prince’s earlier gifts for exactly that purpose was a $500,000 donation to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) to supply American public schools with books and tapes with a retooled, softened view of the Islamic world. CAIR, however, whose stated mission is to “promote a positive image of Islam and Muslims in America,” has become an apologist for terror and anti-Americanism. As part of its mission, it provides teaching materials to school systems, such as the Arab World Studies Notebook, which Sandra Stotsky, a former senior associate commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Education, called “a piece of propaganda,” as opposed to an educational supplement with actual credibility as a teaching tool. A report by The American Jewish Committee about the text was similarly critical, noting that the work book, wh
ich “attempt[ed] to redress a perceived deficit in sympathetic views of the Arabs and Muslim religion in the American classroom, veer[ed] in the opposite direction – toward historical distortion as well as uncritical praise, whitewashing and practically proselytizing.”

As Harvard begins planning how the Prince’s donations will create research programs and advance honest intellectual inquiry into Middle Eastern studies, they will have to be careful to avoid the conflicting purposes that have arisen in other Middle Eastern centers – particularly at Columbia University’s controversial Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures Department where one-sided, biased “scholarship” focuses almost exclusively on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and has been accused of being, at its intellectual core, ideology-driven and characterized with an unrelenting contempt for and dismissal of Israel, Zionism, Jews, and the West. The lesson for Harvard here is that there can be ethical implications inherent in gift giving and receiving: when the university accepts gifts from a donor, it often has to give something in return, as well.

Richard L. Cravatts is a lecturer at Boston University, Tufts, and Emerson College.

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