Harvard economics Professor Subramanian Swamy has become the center of controversy at the university. Professor Swamy left teaching at Harvard during the regular academic year to enter politics in his home country, but continued to return to Cambridge to teach summer courses. Earlier this year, Professor Swamy published an editorial in the Indian newspaper Daily News & Analysis. In reaction to the Mumbai bombing by Muslim terrorists, Professor Swamy advocated declaring India an officially Hindu country and taking steps to enforce its Hindu identity.
Although Swamy did not identify himself as a Harvard Professor or link his ideas in any way to that institution, the ever-vigilant and concerned Harvard community soon learned of his publication of objectionable views. Students and parents petitioned the university to end its connection with the wayward academic, professing their adherence to the free expression of ideas, but asserting that Swamy had gone beyond the limits of acceptability. I have often noted that advocates of censorship in this country generally proclaim loudly their belief in the principle of free expression and then exclude whatever they don’t like from this principle because it “goes too far.” The petitioners also raised questions about Swamy’s ability to treat all students equally (another common strategy by enforcers of conformity), even though there is no evidence at all of his ever discriminating against non-Hindu students at Harvard.
This past week, Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences responded to the controversy by cancelling Professor Swamy’s two summer courses. Diana L. Eck, the Harvard professor who made the proposal to cancel the classes reiterated the view that the university had to cut its ties to Swamy because his ideas involved limiting human rights and denying freedom of religion. The admirable Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has asserted Professor Swamy’s right to advocate radical social change, a right that he shares with Communists or adherents of other ideas that many might see as “going too far.”
Summer courses are assigned at the pleasure of the university and the university does have the right to cancel courses it does not want to offer. Nevertheless, Harvard's faculty body clearly made a very bad decision here. At the most basic level, an employer is making a decision about the continuation of an employee on the basis of political activities completely unrelated to the job, there being no support whatsoever for the claim that Swamy “might” be unfair to some students. Beyond that, FIRE is correct that the university is a special kind of employer, one that has a moral obligation to protect and promote intellectual pluralism. In a university, ideas that someone finds objectionable should be rebutted, not silenced or excluded. But this case actually goes beyond the open expression of views on campus. Harvard's Arts & Sciences faculty, in the U.S. state of Massachusetts, is taking action to officially repudiate an article published in a newspaper in India about politics in India by an Indian citizen.
Anyone aware of my own paper trail should expect me to uphold the right of individuals in Massachusetts or anywhere else to hold informed, semi-informed, and utterly uninformed opinions and judgments about everything under and beyond the stars. While we cannot extend the protections of the U.S. Constitution to people outside the U.S., as human beings we can certainly be certainly be concerned about how our fellow human beings treat other humans everywhere and at all times. But I cannot see why the organization of the faculty at Harvard, as an institutional entity, should have any business taking positions on what are acceptable or unacceptable opinions for Indians on political and social questions in India.