Harvard President Derek Bob today urged universities not to use their economic muscle in boycotting products of "morally repugnant" companies because it would endanger academic independence.
"We cannot expect corporations to respect our academic autonomy if we claim the right to use our economic leverage to influence their business policies," said the head of the nation's most influential school.
However, the self-styled guardian of academic morality cited two cases in which the university should refuse to buy from a corporation: stolen goods and products "manufactured abroad with the use of slave labor or exploited children."
Bok's fourth and final pronouncement on university ethics was sparked by demands from students here and across the country over the past five years for schools to apply economic sanctions against politically controversial firms like Gallo wines, J. P. Stevens and the Nestle Corp.
Gallo and Stevens have been cited for union-busting tactics and exploitation of their workers. Nestle is accused of jeopardizing the health of infants by promoting the use of powdered formula in third world countries.
The president of this country's richest and most prestigious university-whose "open letters" over the past few months have triggered controversy in academic circles-said the job of imposing standards on corporate behavior should be left to government.
"The risk of abuse is so great," said Bok, that universities and other private organizations-such as the film industry, he noted, which blacklisted alleged communist sympathizers during the McCarthy era-should refrain from acting as society's judges.
Nestle's advertising campaign in underdeveloped regions of the world has come under intense scrutiny in recent years. The U.N. World Health Organization has set a hearing on the matter for October.
And at a Senate hearing last May 23, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) asked: "Can a product which requires clean water, good sanitation, adequate family income and a literate parent to follow printed instructions be properly and safely used in areas where water is contaminated, sewage runs in the streets, poverty is severe and illiteracy is high?"
Bok suggested that universities encourage faculty experts to conduct impartial studies to assist government agencies and international bodies in developing "sensible policies to deal with the underlying problems."
Bok suggested that individuals take action on their own by giving "expression to their sentiments by simply refusing to eat, drink or use particular products to which they take exception.
"If sufficient numbers refrain from using such a product, they may actually make a more eloquent statement than they could convey by persuading their university to institute a boycott," Bok said.
Bok also answered critics of his earlier academic "papal bulls" like Georgetown University President Timothy S. Healy, who attacked the Harvard president's call for universities to maintain a neutral stance and remain above campus political scuffles.
The notion of [a university] being a moral cipher is unsupportable," wrote Healy, "It is obvious to me that Harvard's desire to lean backward to avoid public moral stances is not a posture suitable to Georgetown."
Bok answered: "I have come to realize that my first essay has at times been read to imply that universities must always remain aloof from the world and never seek to address evils, its sufferings and its moral dilemmas; this is emphatically not the case."
He argued: "If universities are pressed beyond their normal functions to assume a social role that they are ill-equipped to play, they may easily falter in discharging their central purposes."