Harvard President Derek Bok, beset by protests over the school's acceptance of "dirty money" to build its nearly $1.5 billion endowment, today urged the university to stand above the campus political fray or risk its academic freedom.
"Although the freedom of universities is generally recognized today, memory of enemies lists, loyalty oaths and antisubversive campaigns should remind us that our autonomy will always remain precarious and fragile," said Bok, a longtime, self-proclaimed advocate of higher academic moral standards.
Bok said the job of Harvard, whose institutional rumblings often shake the halls of academia nationwide, is to teach, research and stay politically neutral -- "not to reform society."
His remarks, the first in a series of "reflections on the ethical responsibilities of the university in society," came after more than a year of chanting and sign-waving by militant students with a litany of demands and just before the "Rite of Spring," the traditional warm weather campus protests.
Often to the embarrassment of university officials, students here have called for the nation's richest as well as most prestigious university to divest itself of stock in companies doing business with South Africa, which has been condemned for its racial policies.
Some marred the unveiling of the new Kennedy School of Government last fall because a library was named after a major contributor to Harvard, Charles Englehard, who made his fortune on South African gold, students say, at the expense of that country's blacks.
Others want the university to economically boycott Nestle's products because that company is allegedly endangering the health of infants by promoting the use of powdered formula in Third World countries.
"But we're not asking Harvard to do anything that we haven't already demanded of any other large corporation -- and Harvard is a big company in which education is only one part," said Luther Ragin, a law school student and member of the Southern Africa Solidarity Committee.
"Harvard has to be held to the same standards of ethical behavior and conduct that we would seek to hold any other corporation to," he said. "And Bok's argument is no different than that of IBM or GM who also have South African investments -- who also can't take account of their social and political ramifications on the way to greater profits."
Indeed, Bok notes, a reason for the "reluctance to sever relationships on moral or political grounds is that such actions will often cost money -- whether by refusing gifts, selling stock precipitously, or turning to more costly alternative suppliers. If such actions cost the university money, responsible officials may have strong ethical reasons for refusing to comply."
However, Bok said Harvard would not accept a gift if there were strings that would impinge on the university's academic autonomy. The funds universities "administer are given in trust for educational purposes and not for political and moral causes, however worthy they may be," he said.
Bok added in an interview that the purpose of his series of academic "white papers" is to raise the level of debate on the moral issues facing the university.
"I want to show students that these are serious issues that I have given a great deal of thought," he said. "I'm not just shooting from the hip."