One of India’s most prominent politicians has recently come under public scrutiny due to a petition started by a group of Harvard undergrads and graduate students. (As of today, the petition has 440 signatures—including mine.)
Following the Mumbai bombings last month, Swamy wrote an article in the popular Indian newspaper Daily News and Analysis entitled “Analysis: How to wipe out Islamic terror.” (The primary suspects in the bombing are the Indian Mujahideen, a Muslim terrorist group.) In the article, Swamy asserts that “Muslims of India are being programmed by a slow reactive process to become radical and thus slide into suicide against Hindus.” He proposes a multi-step process to destroy Islamic terrorism that includes forcing all Muslims to “acknowledge that their ancestors were Hindus” in order to vote.
Subramanian Swamy also happens to teach economics at the Harvard Summer School, and used to be a member of the Harvard Department of Economics.
The students’ petition notes that Swamy’s claims “disparage and cast suspicion on the entire Muslim community in India,” and calls on Harvard to “repudiate Swamy’s remarks and terminate his association with the University.”
A spokesperson for the university originally promised to give the matter “serious attention.” But after an outcry by civil liberties group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, another Harvard spokesperson declared that “it is central to the mission of a university to protect free speech, including that of Dr. Swamy and of those who disagree with him,” implying that the university would not take any action against Swamy.
Although I have signed the petition asking for Harvard to repudiate Swamy’s anti-Muslim assertions, I am also a firm believer in free speech and freedom of expression. Indeed, I believe that Swamy has the right to say, write, or publish anything he wants—including offensive remarks about Muslims.
However, this petition does not call for Swamy to be arrested, tried, banished, or silenced. It simply asks Harvard to discontinue its association with an offensive figure, noting that “Swamy’s comments cast doubt on his ability to treat a diverse community of students with fairness and respect.”
After all, Harvard University is a place of education first and foremost. Just as Harvard has the right to prohibit people from teaching who have demonstrated that they are unethical or simply ineffective educators, it should also dissociate itself from those who actively espouse discriminatory and dangerous views towards a group that makes up a significant percentage of the Harvard population.
Former President Larry Summers certainly acted well within his legal right to free speech when he noted that discrepancies in academic performance between women and men might be biologically based. However, the faculty and administration of the University decided that Summers’ remarks were inappropriate based on his position as a powerful force in the educational world; they pressured his resignation.
Harvard’s non-discrimination policy states that “Any form of discrimination based on race, color, … religion, … national or ethnic origin … unrelated to course requirements is contrary to the principles and policies of Harvard University.” Swamy’s stated views towards Islam surely color his interactions with Muslim students in his classes—I know that I personally would feel uncomfortable studying under someone who viewed my religion as institutionalized terrorism.
And whether or not Swamy identifies the religious backgrounds of the students in his classroom, he has already demonstrated his inability to treat those who disagree with him with respect: in an interview, he called the petitioning students “Communists; they are all pro-Soviet.”
Given his stated opinions, I cannot imagine that Swamy would treat all of his students with equivalent respect.
Harvard cannot interfere with its employees’ right to free speech. However, it must ensure that its students have a just and unbiased educational experience. Allowing Swamy to continue teaching at the Summer School compromises Harvard’s non-discrimination policy and the fair education of its students.