Why Harvard Lets Discriminatory Groups On Campus

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According to the Wall Street Journal, David Petraeus will be at Harvard today to address a commissioning ceremony for the seven graduates of the university who are joining the armed forces. It would be an interesting moment for a reflection on the relationship between privilege and service, but instead former Bush speechwriter William McGurn devotes his entire WSJ column to the weird notion that Harvard should be declining all of its federal funding:

On its Web page, Harvard Law School cites the university's nondiscrimination policy and then goes on to describe how it lives up to that principle:

"The Harvard Law School makes one exception to this policy. Under threat of loss of funding to the University resulting from the Solomon Amendment, the Law School has suspended the application of its nondiscrimination policy to military recruiters."

You don't have to be a lawyer to get the point: Even though we are one of the world's wealthiest universities, we'd rather make an exception to our principles than give up the money. So we'll do what the Solomon Amendment requires and hold our noses.

Oh please. As I'm sure McGurn knows perfectly well, the reason Harvard Law School adopted this policy is because Congress changed the rules of the Solomon Amendment in 2001 so that if Harvard Law School (or any school within a larger university) barred military recruiters over Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the entire university would lose its federal funding. Standing on principle is all well and good, but it's quite a bit different from imposing your principles on others -- which is what the rule change asked the law school to do. You don't have to be a columnist for the Wall Street Journal to get this point.

A somewhat broader and more obvious point is that Institutions of higher education can contain a multitude of principles. One is "provide the best possible education to your students." Another easy one (for Harvard at least) is "don't discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation."

But institutional principles can and do conflict. If Harvard Medical School gives up tens of millions of dollars in federal research grants (at stake: "provide the best education possible") so that Harvard Law School can prohibit an organization from recruiting on campus (at stake: "don't discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation") does "principle" really win? It seems to me that the careful and pragmatic management of tradeoffs is just how every reasonably nuanced organization gets things done.

Image from Flickr user Gosh@