Over the past year, Harvard University has been strongly criticized for several questionable decisions relating to the war on terror. Specifically, the school continues to ban ROTC, has allowed terrorist front groups to raise funds on campus, and has named as its undergraduate-commencement speaker a supporter of a Hamas front group who refuses to categorically condemn terrorism.
All of these decisions have one thing in common: They are all highly unrepresentative of the broader Harvard community. All three decisions were made by only one Harvard constituency — sometimes by only a single committee or individual. Having this many scandalous actions taken in a single year indicates a governance problem at the university.
In general, Harvard has given its faculty and individual administrators so much power that other voices, particularly those of students and alumni, are shut out. Worse, those that are empowered have often pursued aggressive political agendas that would be considered fairly extreme in mainstream American society.
For example, most Americans unconditionally support the military, but Harvard continues to ban ROTC. Harvard's faculty alone is empowered to decide whether and how the university supports this program. The faculty voted to remove ROTC from campus in 1969 to protest the Vietnam War, and to defund the exiled program in 1994 to protest the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
In 1999, however, Harvard's Undergraduate Council voted to ask the school to bring the program back. This year, after September 11, the Council passed another resolution supporting ROTC in an effort to make their voices heard. There is also widespread alumni support for the program. And now, even Harvard's president, Lawrence Summers, is believed to desire a significant change in ROTC policy. Nonetheless, Harvard's anti-military faculty is able to impose its views on the rest of the Harvard community.
Similarly, a committee of only five professors and one administrator was responsible for selecting Zayed Yasin as the school's undergraduate-commencement speaker. Unlike at other universities, students had no input. Mr. Yasin vocally supports and raised funds for the Holy Land Foundation, a Hamas front group whose assets have been frozen by the Treasury Department. He also publicly supports sending funds to the families of suicide bombers — which the U.S. government considers tantamount to encouraging and supporting terrorism itself.
Not surprisingly, some committee members harbor fairly extreme political views similar to those of Mr. Yasin. The chair of the committee, Richard Thomas, is an active supporter of the effort to divest Harvard's assets from Israel, such as the school's equity holdings in IBM, General Electric, and McDonald's. Another committee member, Dean Michael Shinagel, has said that "it is not a black and white issue that Hamas is a terrorist organization. Hamas has done more good for the people of Palestine than their own government." Moreover, committee member and university marshal Richard Hunt took the unusual step of encouraging Mr. Yasin to submit his speech — which calls into question the fairness of the process by which Mr. Yasin was chosen over 65 other applicants.
The pattern continues with Harvard's decision to allow terror-linked groups, which have not had their assets frozen, to fundraise on campus. The dean of extracurricular life, David Illingworth, is empowered to make this decision on his own. In November 2000, the Harvard Islamic Society and the Society of Arab Students sponsored a well-publicized fundraising dinner on campus to support the Holy Land Foundation and the Palestinian Red Crescent. While both groups are linked to terrorism, the Holy Land Foundation — which at that time had not had its assets frozen — was known as a particularly onerous Hamas front group. Though funds were eventually only given to the Red Crescent, after a public outcry, the fundraiser was held for both groups with the acquiescence of the university.
Clearly, Harvard needs to reform how important decisions such as these are made. President Summers should seek ways to implement more inclusive and representative means for deciding issues that affect the whole Harvard community. He should also work to rehabilitate Harvard's image and distance the school from extremism. We cannot afford to have our most prestigious and visible educational institution appear to be anti-military, or to be accommodating Islamic extremists, in this time of war. This image is not representative of the broader Harvard community and unfairly taints all those in that community. And, given Harvard's importance in American society and visibility throughout the world, it also sends a damaging mixed signal to our enemies by calling into question our commitment to the war on terror.
For this reason, it is also essential that the media cover these events at Harvard honestly. Unfortunately, they have not been up to the task. Two days ago, for instance, Nightline devoted an entire show to the controversy over the selection of Mr. Yasin as Harvard's undergraduate-commencement speaker. They made no reference to Mr. Yasin's ties to and continued support for extremist groups — despite indications to opponents of Mr. Yasin's selection that they would. Nightline also failed to mention the problems with the process by which he was chosen.
Similarly, the Washington Post, in its coverage of the commencement controversy, noted only that students have criticized Mr. Yasin's defense of the "humanitarian efforts" of the Holy Land Foundation. This is a shameful whitewashing of the students' primary complaint: Yasin supports the foundation's policy of sending funds to the families of suicide bombers. Both Nightline and the Washington Post — along with the New York Times, CNN, and just about every other "mainstream" media outlet — have brazenly ignored the true objections of Mr. Yasin's opponents, claiming that their objections were based primarily on an emotional response to the word "jihad" rather than on his ties to extremist groups.
As a nation, we need to honestly address and confront the threat of terrorism. We are told by our government that future attacks, on a scale dwarfing Sept. 11, are inevitable. But, in fact, these attacks are being made from within our borders by those living among us. They are only inevitable if we, as a society, fail to understand, condemn, and confront those that — tacitly or explicitly — support terror and violence. The failure of our schools and media institutions to do this will only make the task of defending against terrorism all the more difficult.Pat Collins is a second-year student at the Harvard Business School and co-head of the student petition drive protesting the selection of Zayed Yasin as Harvard's undergraduate-commencement speaker. You can sign the petition at http://www.harvardpetition.com.