Harvard makes U-turn and asks Paulin back

November 22, 2002

Harvard University has reversed its decision to withdraw an invitation to poet and Oxford University academic Tom Paulin - despite the president of Harvard's public support for the cancellation. It is not yet known if Mr Paulin has accepted the re-invitation.

English department chair Lawrence Buell said in an email this week that a big factor in the decision was the "widespread concern and regret for the fact that the decision not to hold the event could easily be seen, and indeed has been seen - both within Harvard and beyond - as an unjustified breach of the principle of free speech within the academy".

Mr Paulin, a lecturer at Hertford College, Oxford, was due to deliver the annual Morris Gray lecture last week. But it was cancelled after protests sparked by his statements about Israel. Mr Paulin is alleged to have told an Egyptian newspaper that US-born Israeli settlers should be shot dead. He has since said that his views had been distorted.

Last week Harvard president Lawrence Summers said that although the decision was up to the department, his view was that "the department has come to the appropriate decision". He has not commented this week.

Mr Summers has recently spoken out against anti-Semitism. In a statement at morning prayers last month, he called those demanding divestment from Israel "anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent".

However, Professor Buell said in the email: "The decision not to hold the lecture was not in any direct sense influenced by president Summers' prior remarks on anti-Semitism."

Rita Goldberg, a lecturer on literature familiar with Mr Paulin's work and remarks about Israel, had protested against the original invitation. She sent an email to students encouraging them to avoid the lecture and asking them to contact the English department to protest.

"Under rules instituted by the Rudenstine administration, students are entitled to an environment free of racism, hostility and threatening speech," she wrote. "An audience is oxygen to a poet, and the most effective way of showing your feelings is to deprive him of air."

It is understood that Harvard received a significant number of anti-Paulin protests. The decision to re-invite Mr Paulin was made by the English department's faculty, which voted after a two-hour debate. There were two abstentions, but the rest all voted to extend the invitation again.

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