[Marxism] More on rotting academic foundations

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Oct 21 10:18:59 MDT 2009

Counterpunch, October 21, 2009
"In the Name of False Necessity"
On Harvard's Financial Crisis


To Michael D. Smith,
Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences

October 20 2009

Dear Professor Smith:

I read with great interest as I am sure we all did your letter 
regarding Harvard's finances. It's a long document, many parts of 
which only a professional accountant could truly understand.

It reveals what could not be concealed. It could therefore have 
been at once much longer in some of its parts and in others, a 
good deal more short and plain. You make three basic and simple 

1. The first is that this financial crisis is nobody's fault, 
really. Mssrs. Mr Summers and Rubin are never mentioned. The 
message is instead that other universities did even more poorly 
than ours, that we did the best a reasonable person could do, and 
so on. In brief, who did what to bring us to this juncture in our 
affairs is all water under the bridge. We move on.

2. The second is that the situation is now under control. Other 
people may be suffering, but basically, we are not doing that 
badly. None of us, after all, have been fired, and especially not 
in University Hall. We should be prudent, of course, but we should 
not be too alarmed. Things are OK. So, here again, then, we move on.

But the third point of your message – which has to do with the 
presence of an absence - is the one that interests me most: nary a 
word do I find in your report about the 275 people who were 
dismissed from our staff, 77 in connection to the Faculty of Arts 
and Sciences. There too, is it your point that we should move on? 
I read your unwritten message to be that we have our problems, and 
that they have theirs: am I really mistaken in thinking this?

I was profoundly disturbed by these dismissals, as were many other 
members of the teaching staff. (It would incidentally have been 
nice if we had been able to discuss such a move on the Faculty 
floor.) As I see it, the implication of your silence on this issue 
has to be that although we are, by your own count, still worth 26 
billion dollars, we could not find the money to keep on our 
payroll these employees who have served us well. And this in a 
society where unemployment often means the end of medical 
coverage, and even for some, homelessness, a sad reward 
incidentally for those of them who had faith in the reckless 
message of Mssrs Summers and Rubin, both of whom, incidentally, we 
might well want to censure for their strikingly incompetent 
management of our fortunes, our investments, and especially, our 

Your silence here is eloquent: what it tells us is that the 
world's richest educational institution, upon reflection, decided 
that it could not afford to keep its weakest members afloat. This 
is for me immensely discouraging. Your reasoning (i.e: "these cuts 
were painful, of course, but necessary") would perhaps have been 
wise if you were running some banal firm. Or bank. But you are 
not. In my view, your message is inappropriate coming as it does 
from for someone who is in charge of the world's leading - and 
richest -educational institution, a university on a hill as it 
were, and a flagship for academic life world over.

I do not know what President Lowell did about our monies during 
the 1929 depression because that is not what now matters about his 
years at Harvard. But his approval of the violently contested 
execution of Sacco and Vanzetti does still matter, as do 
homosexuals driven to suicide. I know that the years of Mr. 
Conant's presidency marked the beginning of Harvard as a world 
University, for which we are all grateful; but I also remember his 
endorsement of the decision to destroy – many would say murder – 
not once, but twice tens of thousands of Japanese civilians by 
atomic war. By contrast, what Mr. Conant did with Harvard's 
wealth, few people today know or care.

World historical issues for a world historical institution like 
ours are not about millions or even billions. What will be 
remembered of your deanship is not the figures of your report, but 
the pain which in the name of false necessity you chose to impose 
on our community's least influential members. This is not a matter 
of life and death, obviously – I hope so in any case - but it is 
of some consequence

When we emerge from this crisis, and have forgotten the arrogance, 
self-indulgence, and recklessness of our former managers, what 
will still matter is not the dry facts of your report, but its 
hidden spirit. What we will all recall it is that in a moment of 
manageable crisis, Harvard University chose to become a cruel 
employer without much regard to those like myself who want to find 
it "sans peur et sans reproche."

In an age that prizes human rights and socially responsible 
employers, your decision will be remembered as a sad and unworthy 
moment in the historical annals of our University. It's not the 
present that should hold your attention: it is our future and 
above all else, our past, checkered at times but quite glorious also.

Your report should have two additional paragraphs. I urge you to 
add them as a footnote to your pages. The first would provide us 
with a precise figure: it would be a statement regarding the exact 
amount of money that we secured by inflicting woeful pain on the 
University's staff, together with your justification of that 
decision. Had we kept them on, how far now would we be below our 
current 26 billion mark? A calculation made by exact tenth of one 
percentage point would be welcome.

And the second would be an assurance that no further dismissals 
will be made. Many other universities as you know have somehow 
managed to be more generous than we have been. Harvard must set 
the highest moral standards as well as highest intellectual 
standards for our nation. In this difficult time, in which so many 
Americans are suffering the consequences of irresponsible fiscal 
policies, Harvard really should do better. It is our silence that 
has allowed its former handlers to go forth, cynically, into the 
wider world. This is the moment also for our university to show 
America and the world that the riches of a great educational 
institution cannot be measured only in dollars and cents, in 
millions or billions. This is the moment for Harvard to show that 
true responsibility in a fiscal crisis means sheltering loyal and 
vulnerable by-standers instead of absolving the powerful. Such a 
move would be widely hailed.

Patrice Higonnet is Robert Walton Goelet Professor of French 
History at Harvard. He has written major works on the French and 
American Revolutions and on 19th and 20th century Political History.

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