Pushed out of Harvard, professor returns fire
Dismissal stirs debate over free speech
Subramanian Swamy is an outspoken man. That is what got him into trouble last July. While teaching economics at the Harvard University summer school, he penned a sharply worded column for a newspaper in India, where he is a prominent right-wing politician.
Many readers thought his proposals would deny Muslims basic rights and incite riots. Some 40 Harvard professors called for his dismissal.
But the furor died down, or appeared to, after Harvard’s president, Drew Faust, defended Swamy’s right to free speech as “central to the mission of a university.’’ The economics department invited him back for another summer. Swamy heard nothing else from Harvard.
Then, a few weeks ago, he checked his e-mail and learned - from a Google Alert for his name - that his colleagues had fired him anyway.
Encouraged by a private note from the summer school’s dean, professors who opposed Swamy came to a faculty meeting where summer classes were to be approved. The process is usually a rubber-stamp affair, but the professors argued so passionately that Swamy’s courses were voted off the slate. No one told Swamy about the meeting.
Now, the case has devolved into an imbroglio about hate speech and academic freedom. The professors who led the charge against Swamy are buried in angry e-mails from his supporters in India. Others are torn, despising both Swamy’s column and the way he was relieved of his duties. Faust is in an awkward spot: She is scheduled to visit India in January.
And the usually outspoken Swamy - who has made few public comments on the issue, save a few Twitter postings - is finally firing back.
“I was surprised Harvard would do this, given that the president’s office said free speech was sacred,’’ he said in an interview. “The people who cut me out are leftists who have nothing to do with economics. There’s no allegation that in my class I said anything offensive. There’s no allegation that it has affected my research. It’s almost like the Spanish Inquisition - they didn’t give me a chance.’’
No one, including Swamy, disputes that the column, which appeared in the English-language Daily News and Analysis, is provocative. Published after a terror bombing in India, it lays out a strategy “to negate the political goals of Islamic terrorism in India, provided the Muslim community fail to condemn these goals and call them un-Islamic.’’
Among its suggestions: remove an iconic mosque on the site of a Hindu temple “and 300 others in other sites as a tit-for-tat;’’ declare that “only those non-Hindus can vote if they proudly acknowledge that their ancestors are Hindus;’’ and “enact a national law prohibiting conversion from Hindu religion to any other religion.’’
Potentially shocking words, but Swamy said he believed they had been misconstrued.
Was he advocating the destruction of mosques? Not exactly, he said: “I said if they threw bombs on our temples, we could restore the temples they demolished earlier on.’’
Did he want to keep Muslims from voting? No, he said: “I was searching for a way to unite Hindus and Muslims. Based on DNA research, we are descended from the same ancestors. I said that if you do not acknowledge that your ancestors are Hindus, you are identifying with those who came from outside, and for them we created Pakistan.’’
To Swamy, these are reasonable points. To Diana Eck, the comparative religion professor who introduced the motion to cancel Swamy’s courses, they are “an open incitement to violence.’’
“He begins by talking about ‘fanatic Muslims’ and proceeds to suggest means of remedy that would affect the entire Muslim population of India,’’ she said. “That’s not an alternative side of a heated political discussion. It’s advocating the abrogation of human rights.’’
Since the meeting, Eck’s inbox has been flooded by Swamy’s allies. They accuse her of issuing a fatwa. Some call for the president to fire her; others blame the president herself for the mess (“Dr. Faust will NOT be welcome in India,’’ one e-mailer wrote).
Eck and her colleagues also have critics who disapprove of what Swamy said but defend his right to say it. Among them is Harry Lewis, the former dean of Harvard College who often serves as its loyal opposition. Swamy’s column does not fit the legal definition of incitement, he said. (It also does not seem to have incited any violence.) It was political speech, he said, the kind often most in need of protection.
More importantly, Lewis said, the back-channel way in which Swamy was dismissed sets a precedent that could be used against any professor who offends. “If you create a weapon,’’ Lewis said, “the weapon will eventually be used against you.’’
But Eck called concerns about a slippery slope ridiculous. The faculty course approval process, she said, applies only to the summer school, and use of it in this manner is so rare that no one can remember another instance.
Free-speech advocates have asked Harvard administrators for redress. Anne Neal, a Harvard alumna who is head of the higher education lobbying group American Council of Trustees and Alumni, said she welcomed Faust’s original expression of support. “Not to speak up a second time when these same principles are at play would be a very sad statement about governance at Harvard,’’ she said.
But the school’s administration has been silent on the case since July, and it remains so, declining requests for comment.
For his part, Swamy has moved on. He has no plans to sue Harvard. Actually, he said, he loves the school, where he has studied and taught on and off since 1962. He will not be seeking an academic position elsewhere: “It’s Harvard or nothing.’’
He might have one opportunity to return. Hate speech or no, Eck said, she “felt kind of bad’’ that no one from Harvard had asked Swamy to explain himself while controversy flared. “There are many people who would like to have him come and speak,’’ she said. “Perhaps he will. I would certainly attend the talk.’’
Published Monday, January 2, 2012.