Claudine Gay has resigned as president of Harvard University, my alma mater.
This resignation and the reasons for it carry implications for civilized living in our times.
What are the moral and ethical qualifications for greatness in college and university education?
I would say that for decades, the examples of Harvard and Oxford were models for our world community. Everywhere, colleges and universities were funded and enhanced to measure up to Harvard and Oxford standards.
If Harvard falls victim to narrowmindedness and prejudice, then something unexpected and untoward has happened to all of us.
These past few days, when thinking of the president of Harvard succumbing to the temptations of plagiarism in her academic writings, I wondered where in the Caux Round Table articulation of ethical principles we might find a standard to apply to Harvard in these circumstances.
First, I considered the stakeholder theory driving the Caux Round Table Principles for Business. Harvard University is a business. It has capital assets. It produces products to sell. It has customers. It markets its services and reputation. It hires employees and seeks investments (donations).
But what guidance does stakeholder theory provide for the governing body of Harvard University, the members of the Harvard Corporation?
Who are the owners of the business that is Harvard University? Only the members of the corporation?
Who are its customers – students or their parents? Who has a stake in its products? What are its products, by the way? Just degrees for those who pay tuition? Who should care about the impact of its graduates on the economy, culture, politics and economy of wherever they might live and work? Why not society at large as a customer or a consumer of what Harvard puts out to the public?
But who supplies Harvard’s business enterprise with its necessary inputs? Who is its supplier stakeholder? Society. Harvard needs students to work on them and so shape them as a refined product. What does Harvard owe society, its supplier, in the work it does in shaping its graduates?
In this business model, suppliers of students – mostly parents – pay the company to take in what it needs to succeed in the market. The price paid by parents varies from student to student depending on scholarships provided by Harvard.
What are the externalities – positive and negative – of what Harvard produces? What about its influence on the production of symbolic goods, such as thoughts and values?
Does civilization have a stake in what Harvard does or does not accomplish?
I would argue that Harvard has many stakeholders and must be responsible for affirmatively and constructively responding to their interests and aspirations, a tough balancing act to be sure.
Harvard’s stakeholder responsibilities demand seeking equilibrium among values and interests, not giving in to satisfy narrow rent-seeking by any one or two particular stakeholder constituencies.
In the Caux Round Table Principles for Government, we propose that those who hold power in service to society – such as universities – hold a public office and so shoulder public trust responsibilities. This demands putting to one side personal prerogatives and intolerances in order to open-mindedly serve those who will benefit from a fair and just exercise of power. The burden of disclosing self-seeking rests with the self-seeker holding such an office.
Further, our principles for government demand full and robust discourse as the process supporting decision-making. Censorship and cancel culture have no place in discourse, which seeks to expose the truth without giving in to fear or seeking favor from the high, the mighty and the rich.
Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis remarked that “If there be a time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”
In Harvard’s case, these norms of meeting trust responsibilities and seeking truth should have long since supplanted racist prejudices and discriminations in admissions, curricula and teaching and in promotion of employees like Claudine Gay.
In a similar vein, our ethical principles for civil society institutions (CSI) hold that:
The actions of a CSI – whether small or large, local or global – will be consistent with its core service aspirations. Its leadership and staff will not use their positions for personal advantage of any kind, including inappropriate, personal financial gain. Fidelity to their trust and due care in the execution of their mission are the hallmarks of responsible CSIs.
A CSI will recognize that it and all its actions and endeavors reflect the interests and values of the people who fund, organize, operate or in any way support the organization, as well as the social, cultural, political, economic and environmental interests that such people seek to serve. A CSI serves privately selected, but publicly acknowledged goals and objectives of common benefit and idealistic inspiration. A CSI should promote a wider cause than its own continuity by seeking to achieve that which has wide social, cultural, community, environmental or historic benefit or otherwise contributes to social or natural capital. In doing so, it must be aware of how its actions affect the peoples, communities and natural resources it seeks to promote or preserve, as well as the quality of life for society as a whole.
To sustain its status as providing quasi-public benefits, a CSI will always be open for dialogue and good faith engagement with objectivity, research and a diversity of moral and ethical points of view.
A CSI will recognize that its policies and activities are a legitimate subject of public comment and analysis. It is, therefore, willing to engage in reasoned discourse regarding its mission and objectives, values, principles, governance, actions and means used to achieve its objectives. When engaging in advocacy, a CSI will always, in good faith, present accurate facts and truthful information. When planning its actions or executing its policies, a CSI will demonstrate enlightened care and concern for those whose interests will be affected by its contemplated actions. In case a CSI inflicts damage upon a government, international organization, corporation or other party, it will be accountable for its actions.
On a personal note, I am both saddened by the failure of Harvard in recent years to allow its corporate culture and practices to deteriorate as they have and relieved that a crisis has occurred to bring this decline in institutional virtue to public attention.
When I was an undergraduate, the college, to me, was open, inclusive, intellectually vibrant, with your mind so often being challenged and growing every day by those you would meet willy-nilly. My class had members from many ethnic and national backgrounds, each of whom we credibly assumed was personally up to the challenge of working hard to gain knowledge.
We never worried about saying only what others expected us to say about politics, culture, entertainment or the social need to self-censor. If we spoke or acted without grace, compassion or intelligence, we could be challenged, but would very rarely be demeaned or ostracized. We learned through discourse and the ups and downs of friendships.
Now, Harvard gives undergraduates an average grade of 3.8. Back then, getting a 2 was satisfactory and the norm for many of my classmates while getting a 4 (A) – really, really, hard to do. It’s a different place now, not one that I respect; all for show, no grit.