The Besieged Professor Strikes Back


Embattled Harvard professor Charles M. Lieber is known for many things: conducting groundbreaking nanoscience research, growing a giant pumpkin (the 17th largest in the world in 2014), and, most prominently, for his recent arrest by federal authorities for allegedly lying to the United States government about funding he received from the Chinese government.

Now, Lieber is suing Harvard for not covering the legal fees associated with his criminal lawsuit, pointing to Harvard’s indemnification policy. According to Lieber’s complaint, Harvard policy states that the “University shall indemnify a Qualified Person acting in a Covered Role.” The complaint states that in March of this year, Lieber requested that Harvard indemnify his legal fees, which the University denied, prompting Lieber to file suit.

In denying Lieber’s request, Harvard pointed to a clause in the University’s indemnification policy which states that a “Qualified Person” can be denied compensation if they are “determined not to have acted in good faith.” This “good faith” justification does not sit well with us. After all, the case itself is at least in part predicated on whether Lieber acted in good faith with respect to his role at and responsibilities to Harvard. And while if he is found guilty it would seem difficult to argue he acted in good faith, if he’s cleared of the charges, won’t Harvard’s indemnification decision be flat-out wrong?

Perhaps this would all make sense if it were the University suing Lieber; given the nature of the charges, it arguably could. But it’s not, which suggests something altogether more serious: For the University, so thoroughly steeped in federal funding, there can be no question of good faith when the security of American knowledge is at stake. Lieber’s indemnification claim is really just a nonstarter.


Despite the difficulty of their application in his case, it bears noting there’s a reason these indemnification policies exist in the first place. And though we recognize there are cases where the University footing the bill for its employees’ legal fees feels uncomfortable — say, a student sues a faculty member alleging sexual misconduct — the ultimate purpose of the policy is to protect University employees from legally-mediated harassment. In general, Harvard professors must be able to conduct research without fear of legal retribution. An indemnification policy is a crucial part of protecting academic freedom.

The indemnification policy, however, also allows Harvard to protect itself. The policy benefits the faculty members, but by protecting the reputation of its employees, Harvard also protects its own reputation. Selective application of the indemnification policy — the choice to cover the legal fees of some faculty and not others — makes it completely self-serving. Looking beyond the specifics of Lieber’s case, should the University so easily be able to wash their hands of employee protections when they present a public relations problem?

By refusing Lieber the indemnification he claims that was guaranteed in his contract, Harvard is protecting its own reputation. The University does not want to be publicly connected to Lieber because being tied to secretive Chinese funding, academic espionage, and the new cold war between the United States and China is not a good look. So Harvard refuses to indemnify him.

But Harvard has yet to fire Government Preceptor David D. Kane for the racist blog posts he does not deny authoring, as so not to be accused of restricting free speech and giving in to “cancel culture.” Many of the University’s hiring, firing, and, it seems, indemnification decisions are similarly designed to protect the University’s reputation. As a result, Harvard’s brand may soar in the eyes of some, but only at the cost of its values.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.