[Marxism] More on rotting academic foundations
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
By PATRICE HIGONNET
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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