The Michael Porter controversy bubbled to the surface last week, thanks to Harry Lewis, computer science professor and former dean of Harvard College. He brought the matter up at a meeting of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
Porter, a distinguished Harvard Business School professor, had held out high hopes for Libya under Khadaffy in a report prepared (with Daniel Yergin’s Cambridge Energy Research Associates) for the Libyan government in 2006. (“Libya’s popular democracy system supports the bottom-up approach critical to building competitiveness. … Libya has the only functioning example of direct democracy on a national level.”)
“To put it simply,” said Lewis, “a tyrant was willing to pay for a Crimson-tinged report that he was running a democracy, and a Harvard expert obliged in spite of all evidence to the contrary.”
“Shouldn’t Harvard acknowledge its embarrassment?” Lewis asked Harvard president Drew Faust, “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?”
Faculty meetings are private. Faust apparently replied to Lewis that she didn’t want to be “scold in chief.” She distributed a written statement. Lewis added a little on his blog. Porter sent an email to the Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper. Former Kennedy School dean Joseph Nye responded to criticism of his involvement, both in The New Republic and in the Huffington Post.
Bloomberg BusinessWeek, which in 2007 had trumpeted the Porter project, followed up last week with a pithy survey of the situation (“Flattery for hire has no place on the CV of a serious academic”).
The really interesting questions have to do with channels of influence. Heretofore stories have tended to blame Monitor, the Cambridge, Mass., consulting group founded by Porter and seven other Harvard Business School professors. The reputations of Joseph Nye and Robert Putnam, both former deans of Harvard’s Kennedy School, and political scientist Benjamin Barber, have been bruised.
But it was Porter’s personal project from the beginning. It was he who somewhat breathlessly broke the news of his engagement in the Financial Times, in 2006, which reported it on its front page. ”I have gotten to know Saif quite well,” he explained the next year to BusinessWeek, referring to the dictator’s son. “He was a doctoral candidate at the London School of Economics, where he studied with some of the best professors. He’s very much oriented towards making Libya a member of the modern world community.”
That was shortly before Porter says he ended his involvement, after he learned that the wrong man was put in charge of the project he had devised. But Monitor continued to collect.
And a year after Porter quit, the Libyan dictator’s reincarnation as “a mainstream, more responsible member of the world community” was intact. The FT noted in an advertising supplement “the procession of world leaders to Khadaffy’s door” (but not that many of the stream of visitors had been paid by Monitor).
Moreover, this time the FT didn’t consult Porter. He appeared in the story only as another button on Khadaffy’s sleeve, “the Harvard management guru… once an adviser to Ronald Reagan as US president, [who] helped to produce a 200 page document that called for prioritizing tourism, agriculture and construction to diversify an economy in which oil and gas account for 70 percent of gross domestic product.”
Say this then for Michael Porter. When he’s bought, he stays bought. He has had a remarkable career as a master explicator of industrial strategies, a consultant to corporations and governments alike. What he thought there was to gain from becoming public relations councilor to a madman and his son remains a real mystery.
DAVID WARSH covered economics for The Boston Globe for 22 years and, earlier, reported on business for The Wall Street Journal and Forbes. He publishes Economic Principals.com, an independent weekly commentary on the production and distribution of economic ideas, where this article first appeared. He can be reached at email@example.com