Conflict of Interest?

The Republican Party of Massachusetts apparently wants Harvard to fire law professor Elizabeth Warren. This is because Warren is running for the U.S. Senate. According to an article by Tara W. Merrigan and Zoe A. Y. Weinberg in the Harvard Crimson:

In a letter to University President Drew G. Faust, Nate Little, executive director of the Massachusetts GOP, expressed concern that Warren’s Senate run would detract from her academic work at Harvard, and that her ties to Harvard may suggest that the University endorses her.

“For Harvard to continue to employ her as a candidate is inconsistent with the academic mission of the college; detracts from the work that she would be expected to perform as a member of the faculty; and creates the impression that Harvard endorses, supports and is in fact subsidizing her campaign,” Little wrote.

What does he mean “creates the impression”? The institution does not endorse, support, or subsidize her campaign. If that impression exists Harvard might want to merely correct that impression, as is it is not accurate.

Even the Boston Globe gets caught up in this little rumor, writing that “professors rarely run for major offices, and when they do, they typically drop their academic positions.” This isn’t really accurate. Professors run for office so rarely that there’s no typical way to go about this at all.

As Timothy Noah notes at The New Republic, John Silber took a leave of absence from the presidency of Boston University to run for governor of the Bay State in 1990. Robert Reich, however, continued to teach at Brandeis when he ran for governor in 2002. (Both Silber and Reich lost.)

There’s actually no consistency here whatsoever. Sometimes people resign academic oppositions to run for political office, but someone running for office is under no ethical obligation to stop working for a university. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Noah appropriately points out, continued to serve as a professor at Harvard even while running for office in another state altogether.

Now, granted, such behavior probably wasn’t so great for his students, but no one suggested Harvard was endorsing anything.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer