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November 12, 2002

CENSORSHIP AT HARVARD? Will these people ever learn?

Like most campus censorship incidents, this seems to be inspired by some administrator's fear of bad publicity. And, as usual, the censorship is generating more bad publicity than the original event ever could have. If I were thinking of applying to Harvard Business School, this would be a major turnoff. It would be an even bigger turnoff if I were thinking of donating to Harvard Business School. Here's my favorite part:

The words “incompetent morons,” which appear in one of the pop-up windows, provoked administrative response when HBS Career Service Officer Matthew S. Merrick told senior administrators that he felt offended by the phrase, according to HBS Senior Associate Dean Walter C. Kester.

Hmm. "Offended" is a PC term of art. But why does it apply here? Is this because he is a moron, and thus finds the term offensive to a group to which he belongs? (It's offensive to "moron-Americans!") Or is it that he doesn't like being called incompetent, which would seem to be a fair criticism given persistent computer problems? Either way, this is awfully thin-skinned. How can people operating in this kind of a culture turn out CEOs capable of operating in the real world, where "incompetent moron" is pretty low on the insult totem pole?

UPDATE: A reader emails that the very fact of this censorship scandal proves the cartoon right:

So the cartoonist at Harvard was right! The administration at the Harvard Business School ARE "incompetent morons"--and downright mean too. Truth ought to be a defense to any disciplinary action for calling them "incompetent morons."

Sounds fair to me.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Of course, it's okay to offend people at Harvard by saying that Jews "should be shot dead," and that you can understand suicide bombers. As Best of the Web noted, Harvard is having Oxford poet Tom Paulin in to discuss his views on these subjects, which certainly offend me. "Incompetent morons," indeed. Or something worse. (NOTE: Paulin has been disinvited. See this post, above.)

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: Reader King Tower writes that they're incompetent, lying morons:

As with many of these campus censorship matters, the administraction is weakly backtracking without, of course, admitting any error. Along these lines, I have to take issue with the Crimson's acquiesence in Mr. Kester's attempt to deflect blame onto some amorphous "miscommunication." The article reads:

Miscommunication between the deans on the subject seems to be part of the issue. "We all agreed to say nothing that could be construed as intervening with
the content of the paper, or the content of articles regarding Career Services," said Kester. "We wanted to narrowly focus our message on the impact of those two words."

What Mr. Kester apprently fails to recognize is that "those two words" [incompetent morons] WERE the content of the paper. In fact, intervening with the paper's content is exactly what the administration was trying to do. Whether there was confusion over the degree to which the poor student editor was to have his educational prospects threatened is beside the point -- Mr. Kester's chosen agent delivered precisely the content-based, chilling message that Mr. Kestner intended.

This seems right to me. The other possibility, of course, is that they're telling the truth and that "communications problems" at a premier school of management have led to public humiliation. That makes them look like, well, incompetent morons. Adding to the humiliation, TAPPED and The Corner have joined in bipartisan disapproval.

STILL MORE: Eugene Volokh weighs in:

The funny thing is that, at least based on my experience of universities and graduate schools, counter-speech is a highly effective reaction to offensive speech (much more so than in public debate generally). Students generally respect the administration, especially when the administration says sensible things -- "name-calling is juvenile," "how do you think this makes the career services staff feel?," "do you think this is good training for your future life in the business world?," "the people around you will be potential future business partners and employers; do you want them to remember you as rude, juvenile, and irresponsible?" But, no, that's somehow not good enough for the administration, which (assuming, of course, that the Harvard Crimson's account is correct) seems to insist on threatening administrative sanctions where moral leadership would work much better.

Volokh is right to demand moral leadership from academic administrators. But he's optimistic to expect it. It certainly isn't evident in this case.

ONE MORE UPDATE: N.Z. Bear calls Harvard's behavior "thuggish" and offers some observations from his own experience editing an Ivy League student paper.

This whole thing must be giving Larry Summers heartburn.