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Blog post stirs mixed emotions over Harvard honor for educator

By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / September 16, 2010

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A provocative blog post by New Republic Editor Martin Peretz has set off a controversy at Harvard over whether the university should allow the longtime Harvard instructor to be honored at a ceremony next week.

Distinguished alumni, professors, and other fans of Peretz have spent the past six months raising more than half a million dollars to establish an undergraduate research fund named after Peretz, who taught at Harvard for more than 40 years, until about five years ago. They plan to honor Peretz as part of a daylong celebration Sept. 25 marking the 50th anniversary of Harvard’s social studies major.

But the honor has become controversial following a blog post Peretz authored on Sept. 4. He wrote, “Frankly, Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims,’’ and asserted that Muslims have hardly “raised a fuss about the routine and random bloodshed that defines their brotherhood.’’

“So yes, I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse,’’ Peretz wrote.

Peretz this week apologized for writing such an “embarrassing sentence,’’ saying he does not actually believe what he wrote. But he stood by the sentence about Muslim life, saying it is a “statement of fact, not value.’’

New York Times columnist (and Harvard alum) Nicholas Kristof had condemned Peretz for questioning whether Muslims should be afforded constitutional freedoms. And some in the Harvard community have called upon the university to remove Peretz’s name from the research fund lest it tarnish Harvard’s image.

“The question is whether an institution like Harvard wants to valorize someone who would hold such hateful views,’’ said Stephen Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government who himself has been at the center of controversy, in his case for a book he coauthored, called “The Israel Lobby,’’ that was criticized by Peretz among others. “If you had said this about blacks, Jews, or Catholics, it would be a scandal.’’

Yousaf Butt, a scientist at Harvard’s Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said he sent a letter to Harvard’s president, Drew Gilpin Faust, on Tuesday expressing outrage at the fund named for Peretz. He also fired off a letter to his own alma mater, Yale, imploring its president, Richard Levin, to call upon Faust to rename the fund.

“It goes beyond Harvard,’’ Butt said in an interview. “It’s a stain on the academy in general and on the Ivy League. Those kind of values are not something you’d want to pass on to your undergraduate students.’’

Harvard yesterday said it does not plan to block the honor of Peretz, who received his doctorate from Harvard. In a statement yesterday, university officials acknowledged that Peretz’s recent assertions have been “distressing to many members of our community, and understandably so.’’ But the statement also declared that “it is central to the mission of a university to protect and affirm free speech, including the rights of Dr. Peretz, as well as those who disagree with him, to express their views.’’

“We are ultimately stronger as a university when we maintain our commitment to the most basic freedoms that enable the robust exchange of ideas,’’ the statement said.

Peretz would not comment on his writing or views when reached at home yesterday but said he learned of the research fund only about 10 days ago, collected to honor him by “people of all kinds of politics.’’

“I was a faithful Harvard teacher,’’ Peretz said. “The notion that I have to defend myself when students who I’ve taught over 40 years are honoring me is really a little stupid.’’

Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. yesterday called Peretz, whom he has known for 20 years, a “good man’’ whose contributions to the university are worthy of recognition. Renaming the research fund would be “ridiculous and absurd,’’ he said.

“He doesn’t choose his friends by their ideology,’’ Gates said. “Dinner at his house is like a seminar, with people arguing. He treasures argument. And that’s the value I most treasure in him.’’

One of the fund’s organizers, a prominent Harvard alumna who did not want to be named because of the controversy, said the idea for the fund came from students “grateful for the impact of his teaching.’’ The money will support undergraduate thesis research, including travel, and other special projects.

“We’re not trying to find people who will adopt Marty Peretz’s views,’’ she said. “We’re trying to encourage thoughtful scholarship and thank a teacher.’’

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.

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