CAMBRIDGE -- The dean of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government yesterday defended the decision to invite Mohammad Khatami to speak on the eve of Sept. 11, saying the United States needs dialogue with its enemies.
``Do we listen to those that we disagree with, and vigorously challenge them, or do we close our ears completely?" said David Ellwood, the Kennedy School's dean, in an interview with the Globe.
Ellwood said he was disappointed in Governor Mitt Romney's refusal to give state protection to the former Iranian president during his visit. The dean said he approved the invitation, first proposed by faculty members when they learned that Khatami would be speaking at the United Nations. He said decisions on whether to invite political figures with troubling records are made on a case-by-case basis.
The Kennedy School prides itself on inviting important figures from across the political spectrum, domestic and international. Romney has appeared there, along with other conservatives such as former House speaker Newt Gingrich and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Recent speakers on the Middle East have included Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian human rights activist who received the Nobel Peace Prize, and Daniel Ayalon, the Israeli ambassador to the United States.
But the school also found itself under a similar attack several months ago, when a professor coauthored an article criticizing a so-called ``Israel Lobby" for driving foreign policy in Washington to the detriment of US interests. In 2004, Harvard returned a $2.5 million gift to the Divinity School from the president of the United Arab Emirates, after controversy arose over the president's ties to a think tank espousing anti-Semitic ideas.
In deciding to invite Khatami, officials considered that he had been granted a US visa, that he is working with the United Nations, and that he is ``sometimes seen as a reformer," Ellwood said.
Sept. 10 was the only time available, the dean said, and emphasized that Khatami would not be allowed to visit unless he were willing to take unscripted questions. A commemorative event is scheduled for Sept. 11, the fifth anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Boston police have said that they would help with security for Khatami. The State Department and Cambridge police are providing security as well, Harvard said.
Controversy over Harvard's invitation continued to mount yesterday as a Boston-area Jewish group condemned his visit, and a talk radio host encouraged listeners to lodge complaints.
``As an alum, I'm personally offended," said Nancy K. Kaufman, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, who has a master's degree from the Kennedy School. ``We believe in freedom of speech, but I really question the judgment of Harvard giving him a platform."
Meanwhile, Romney stepped up his criticism of Harvard yesterday, tying a lack of campus outrage against Khatami to what he called a politically-correct attack by some faculty members against former Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers.
``It's a `blame America,' it's a `hate America' attitude on the part of some liberals that I think many people find very offensive, myself included," Romney said on WRKO radio yesterday.
He also said Harvard ``effectively disinvited" Ronald Reagan from speaking on the university's 350th anniversary in 1986. There was an outcry on campus over rumors that Reagan would be granted an honorary degree. After Harvard decided not to give out any honorary degrees, Reagan declined the invitation.
Graham T. Allison, director of the Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, said he endorsed a staffer's idea of inviting Khatami. Allison noted the grave importance of engaging Iran on its nuclear program.
Allison compared engaging Khatami to Reagan meeting with the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. And he said the Kennedy School Forum allows for tough questioning of visitors. In 1995, for example, the widow of a soldier who died in Vietnam confronted former Defense secretary Robert S. McNamara.
``Will someone get up at the forum and ask, `Mr. Khatami, your successor has called for wiping Israel off the map. Do you agree or disagree?' " Allison said. ``If they don't, I will certainly ask a question."
Rebecca Rohr, a junior and president of Harvard Students for Israel, said she felt Khatami does not appear to be a genuine partner for dialogue.
``I don't think he's earned the right to come speak to us and [have us] hear what he has to say about `the ethics of tolerance,' " she said, referring to the title of Khatami's talk, ``Ethics of Tolerance in the Age of Violence."
Rohr said she was speaking only for herself, although her group also condemned the visit.
Several Harvard students on campus yesterday, however, were upset with Romney's stance, not their university's invitation. They said the role of the university is to promote the free exchange of ideas.
Nicholas F. Zimmerman, 25, a graduate student in public policy at the Kennedy School, applied for a lottery ticket to attend Khatami's talk, and will learn today if he got in. Zimmerman, a New Yorker who said he knew people who died on Sept. 11, 2001, rejected Romney's assertion that the timing of Khatami's visit is insensitive.
``One thing has nothing to do with the other," he said, emphasizing that there is not a connection between Iran and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
``I believe in free speech," Zimmerman said.
Kathryn Levasseur, 25, a biomedical graduate student, said Khatami is ``not where I would be standing" on the issues, but she said he should be allowed to speak. ``It's just kind of petty, Romney drumming up support," she said, referring to Romney's possible plans to run for president in 2008.
Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at email@example.com.