Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Volokh Takes The Neocon to Task on Harvard Culpability in Walt-Gate

UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh takes the Neocon to task for the recent post “Harvard Running From its Own Dean’s Report”. Volokh, whom I have known for years and have the highest respect for, does not disagree with the Neocon’s analysis of Mr. Stephen Walt’s paper, however, he strongly disagrees with my assessment of Harvard’s culpability in the matter as an institution. The Neocon must bow to Professor Volokh’s Superior knowledge in this area, although I do put up a good fight. Below is the exchange:

Joe, I share your skepticism about the report, but I think much of this analysis is quite mistaken. Faculty work is generally published on university web sites; that's part of the perks that universities give faculty. The presence of the logo doesn't affect things much, either; for instance, most of my paper correspondence is on UCLA letterhead, but that conveys my affiliation with UCLA, not UCLA's endorsement of my message. Harvard is simply trying to convey to the public what people familiar with academic practices already know -- faculty members generally speak for themselves, not for the university (and in fact different faculty members at the same university will often express diametrically opposed viewpoints, and even expressly debate each other).

So I'm pleased that you're criticizing the report, but I don't think it's accurate to say that "Harvard University released [the] report," or that "Harvard [now] basically announces that the Dean ... is an idiot." It is true that Harvard is making clear that it doesn't want to be seen as *endorsing* his writings, but that's true of most professors' writings. I'm sure UCLA wouldn't want to be seen as endorsing my writings, even though they're hosted at

Keep the e-mail coming, though -- I've often found your items quite helpful, and blogged about them. Thanks,

Of course, you are technically correct. However it is fair to point out a few things. 1) There was a certain level of fanfare associated with the release of this report which is one of the reasons it became so public, so quickly. This was not some obscure, low-profile, non-controversial, non-political academic paper where it matters not. 2) It was (purposefully in my view) released with the Harvard logo giving it the full weight of academic credibility and authority associated with Harvard, but that logo has now been suddenly removed in the past 24 hours, if it's no big deal, why remove the logo at all? 3) 24 hours ago there was no disclaimer disassociating the institutions from the paper, now there is this front page disclaimer that was not there before. If it's not a big deal, why the sudden need for a disclaimer?

My view: These folks knew what they were doing, they knew this would be a high-profile, controversial, and non-routine paper. They used the symbols and credibility of the institution not innocently as a routine matter, but as a way of pumping up the credibility of the report in the eyes of others, and as a shield for themselves. Harvard's credibility has suffered as a result, they know it, and that explains the sudden attempts to disassociate. Where am I going wrong here?
Well, if I'm technically correct, then it seems to me that you folks need to clarify matters to make them more precise. Two thoughts in the meantime:

(1) All professors try to get as much fanfare for their reports as possible. That doesn't mean that the institution endorses the report.

(2) As I said before, logos on professors' papers are means of providing identification, not endorsement by the university. They do add credibility, because they identify someone as having the credentials needed to be hired by Harvard, UCLA, etc. But that's the source of the credibility, and not any endorsement by the administrations.

(3) As to your "why the sudden need for a disclaimer?," or for the logo removal, I take it the answer is "Because the university recognized that some members of the public might not understand what academics take for granted" -- which is that academics speak for themselves, not for the university. Usually, that goes without saying. But when something becomes controversial enough, and critics (erroneously) assert -- or seem likely to assert -- that the university endorsed the material, the university might want to make as sure as possible that people understand what, as I said, is the standard academic norm.

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