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John Harvard's Journal

Lessons from Libya?

July-August 2011

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,” that the consulting firm he founded, 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 and to disavow its previous ambitions to obtain nuclear weapons. Both steps were part of its campaign to end its status as a pariah nation.

In this context, the engagement of outside experts with the Libyan government did not seem to raise questions.

Porter had already become involved in advising on that nation’s economy, 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.

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 his forces—the reform effort came to naught. And, as has come to light through reporting by Farah Stockman in the Boston Globe and others, 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 March 24 statement posted on its website, Monitor acknowledged “some errors in judgment” in the context of “a period of promise in Libya,” when “[i]nternational 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.”

“We are aware,” the statement went on, “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.” On May 6, Monitor announced that it had retroactively registered “some of its past work in Libya, as well as recent work with Jordan” with the U.S. government in accordance with the Foreign Agents Registration Act—in effect acknowledging that its image-related work had gone beyond consulting to attempting to influence opinion and perceptions as a lobbying entity.

Given that Harvard faculty members have wide discretion to pursue outside activities, did the direct involvement of Porter in Libya, and the engagement of Monitor as a consulting firm, bear on Harvard as an institution? McKay professor of computer science Harry Lewis, a former Harvard College dean, raised the issue at the April 5 Faculty of Arts and Sciences meeting, during the formal question period. (Porter, of the Business School faculty, was not in attendance; for full texts and links to other reports, see harvardmag.com/lessons-from-libya).

In 2006, he recounted, 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’” and touted “Gaddafi’s Libya as a ‘popular democracy system’ that ‘supports the bottom-up approach critical to building competitiveness.…’” The year 2006, Lewis continued, “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.…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…?” He suggested that President Drew Faust might “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.”

Faust, having been notified in advance of Lewis’s queries, responded, “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.…What is also high on the list is for me to support the wide discretion of all…the faculty across the University, to pursue the directions of academic inquiry…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 “require[s] 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.”

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.…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.…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. But at the least, the potential risks of accepting certain engagements have been made vividly clear once again.

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