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In the spring of 2007, this magazine published a brief news item observing that “Lawrence University Professor Michael Porter, perhaps the world’s preeminent corporate strategist, is advising the government of Libya on economic reform.” It went on to say that the consulting firm he founded, the Monitor Group, “is focusing on energy, tourism, and other industries,” and that other consultants were examining issues of financial reform. Porter was quoted to the effect that Libya “pretty much needs universal reform” after years of Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi’s rule.

At the time, Libya had made efforts to settle the claims from its role in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103—causing the death of 243 passengers and 16 crew members, plus further victims on the ground in Lockerbie, Scotland—and to disavow its previous ambitions to obtain nuclear weapons. Both steps were part of Libya’s campaign to have international and U.S. sanctions lifted, to end its status as a pariah nation, and to move toward some integration with the wider world economy.

In this context, the engagement of outside experts with the Libyan government did not seem to raise questions. Michael Porter had already become involved in advising on that nation’s economy—as early as 2005, it now appears, according to news reports—as he had earlier tackled hard problems ranging from the economy of America’s inner cities to the delivery of healthcare. Other specialists were advising the country as well (see the analysis by David Warsh ’66 in his online “Economic Principals” column).

Yet as is now evident—as Qaddafi has turned his weapons on his own people, and as the United States and NATO allies have resorted to bombing Qaddafi’s forces—the reform effort came to naught. And, as has come to light through reporting by Farah Stockman in the Boston Globe and elsewhere, Monitor Group not only offered advice on the economy, but proposed measures ranging from the commissioned writing of a book on Qaddafi, “the man and his ideas,” to importing experts to meet with him and perhaps burnish his reputation. In a statement posted on its website March 24, Monitor put “some errors in judgment” in this context:

Much of the recent commentary on our work in Libya does not capture accurately who we are, what we do, and what drives us.

Given the terrible spectacle of Col. Gaddafi using force on his own people, it may be difficult to imagine that just a few years ago many saw a period of promise in Libya. Col. Gaddafi had renounced terror, forfeited nuclear and chemical weapons and programs, and declared himself ready to rejoin the community of nations. International policy at the time sought to seize an opportunity to re-engage a rogue nation for the benefit of global security and the people of Libya.

In that context, and especially between 2006 and 2008, when we did the bulk of our work, Libya needed expert assistance to build its democratic institutions and modernize its economy. After decades of isolation, Libya’s business, civic, government, and intellectual leaders also sought to deepen their understanding of ideas and practices in the rest of the world.

Monitor’s work in this period focused on economic development, the training of hundreds of high-potential leaders selected competitively from all sectors of Libyan society and industry, and the introduction of global thought leaders representing a diverse range of perspectives and expertise to enable processes of reform. These are areas where Monitor and its people have great experience and skills, and these are the outcomes we sought to achieve according to our high standards of ethics and excellence.

We regret that this period of promise was so short-lived. We also regret that during the course of our work we did make some errors in judgment, which we have acknowledged and have vowed not to repeat. We are aware that questions have been raised regarding activities that could conceivably be construed as “lobbying,” and therefore introduce questions of regulatory compliance. We take these questions very seriously. Earlier this month we launched a thorough investigation of this subject, led by an internal task force and supported by expert outside counsel, to investigate further and advise us concerning potential registration and reporting.

 

Harvard faculty members are given wide discretion to pursue outside activities. The question has now been raised as to whether, in this context, the direct involvement of Professor Porter in Libya, and the engagement of Monitor, as a consulting firm, bears on Harvard as an institution.

McKay professor of computer science Harry Lewis, a former Harvard College dean, used the occasion of the April 5 Faculty of Arts and Sciences meeting to raise the issue directly, when he rose during the formal question period to address President Drew Faust from a prepared text as follows (Porter, of the Business School faculty, was not in attendance; links are added by Harvard Magazine for the convenience of readers):

Harvard rightly expresses its pride when a member of our community does something noble. I wonder if the University should not also express its shame when a faculty member disgraces the University.

In 2006, University Professor Michael Porter, acting as a consultant to a firm he founded, prepared a report for the Libyan government. The report promised that the country was at “the dawn of a new era.” The slides are up on the web site of Harvard’s Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness. They tout Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya as a “popular democracy system” that “supports the bottom-up approach critical to building competitiveness.…Libya has the only functioning example of direct democracy on a national level” with a “meaningful forum for Libyan citizens to participate directly in law-making.” 2006 was not some now-forgotten springtime of Libyan democracy. In the Economist’s democracy index, published a few months later, Libya edged out the likes of Myanmar and North Korea for 161st position, out of 167 nations.

To put it simply, a tyrant wanted a crimson-tinged report that he was running a democracy, and for a price, a Harvard expert obliged in spite of abundant evidence to the contrary. This is not the first time Harvard has been embarrassed by its professors’ moneymaking activities. A few years ago another economist dishonored the University by exploiting his Harvard status for personal profit in Russia; the Harvard name remains malodorous in Moscow, I understand. [For background, see earlier coverage; the faculty member subsequently was stripped of his named chair.] Students learn what is right and wrong from their professors’ conduct “outside the ivied walls,” as the Gen. Ed. website describes the rest of the world, and from Harvard’s silent acceptance of their behavior.

I don’t know that Professor Porter broke any laws or University rules, and I would not want any new regulatory apparatus. Yet taking money to support a tyranny by dubbing it a democracy is wrong. Shouldn’t Harvard acknowledge its embarrassment, and might you remind us that when we parlay our status as Harvard professors for personal profit, we can hurt both the University and all of its members?

(Lewis subsequently continued his queries on his blog, where he also responded to questions about and comments on his statement, and subsequent news coverage of it.)

Faust, having been notified in advance of Lewis’s queries, responded, “When I reflect on the many different aspects of the president’s role, and when I think about the different ways that the president’s institutional voice can be genuinely useful, serving as the University’s public scolder in chief is not high on the list.” She continued:

 What is high on the list for me is to help foster an environment in which individual members of our community can openly say what they think and can disagree with one another when their points of view diverge. And so I support your prerogative as a member of the faculty to express your concerns on the floor of this faculty or in other forums. What is also high on the list is for me to support the wide discretion of all of you in this room, and all the faculty across the University, to pursue the directions of academic inquiry that you choose, and the outside activities and engagements that you choose—subject to the norms that are reflected in the policies of the University and the faculties, and always with the hope that each of us will exercise our privileges as faculty members in thoughtful and responsible ways.

In that context, she said that increasing individual and institutional engagement with the world “is a good thing,” but also obviously “presents us with challenging choices about how that engagement can best be shaped to advance our mission of producing knowledge and contributing to a better world. These interactions require us all to be sensitive and self-reflective about our engagements, about how they embody our fundamental commitments and how they relate to our principles of academic freedom and independence and to issues of conflict of interest.” Assessing such conflicts, and the broader issues, she said, “is a significant and ongoing process, and we have a responsibility constantly to assess whether we have the right balance between engagement and independence.”

For his part, Porter subsequently weighed in with a statement released initially to the Crimson:

I have worked with dozens of countries around the world on competitiveness and economic development, which is one of my primary fields of research. I have led studies and projects in both advanced and developing countries including Canada, Colombia, Iceland, Kazakhstan, New Zealand, Peru, Russia, Rwanda, the United Kingdom, and Vietnam.
 
In 2004, I was invited by the Libyan government to lead a substantial study of the Libyan economy with the goal of opening and integrating the economy with the rest of the world, liberalizing markets and competition, improving skills and infrastructure, reforming institutions, and enabling entrepreneurial and business development opportunities for Libyans. The period beginning in 2004, after Libya had opened up, renounced weapons of mass destruction, and settled international sanctions, marked the first opportunity for true reform in Libya for decades. The reform efforts were strongly supported by the U.S. government. The study was conducted primarily in 2005 and 2006.
 
Among other things, the study identified numerous fundamental weaknesses that needed to be addressed if Libya was going to advance economically and socially, including weaknesses in governance. The study put forth far-ranging recommendations for change throughout the economy and in Libyan institutions. As it became clear over the following year that vested interests and conservatives had succeeded in halting the reform process, I stopped my work in Libya in the first quarter of 2007 and have not worked there since.

In the immediate aftermath of these exchanges, it seemed unlikely that any changes in fundamental University policy concerning faculty members’ outside activities would be forthcoming—nor do faculty members seem to want such restrictions, if they could be drawn (as Lewis noted). But at the least, the potential risks of accepting certain engagements have been made vividly clear once again.