December 12, 2008  ·  Lessig

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It is with a complicated mix of excitement and sadness that I make the following announcement.

As some of you remember, just over a year ago I reported that I was shifting my academic (and activist) work from free culture related issues to (what I called) “corruption.” At Stanford, a year ago, I outlined what this work would be: To focus on the many institutions in public life that depend upon trust to succeed, but which are jeopardizing that trust through an improper dependence on money. Read the New York Times Editorial of last week. Or think of medical researchers receiving money from drug companies whose drugs they review; legal academics receiving money to provide public policy advice from the very institutions affected by that advice; or Congress filled with Members focused obsessively on how to raise money to secure their (or their party’s) tenure. In all these cases, dependency on money in these ways tends to weaken public trust. Or so was my hypothesis when I launched on this project.

But how I would pursue this work has been a constant challenge. I started immediately to devour the books recommended to me by colleagues and on my wiki. I attended conferences and gave talks about the subject. I began a series of interviews with insiders. And with the help of Joe Trippi, I launched Change Congress, which was designed to focus these issues in the context of American politics.

Throughout this process, however, I have felt that the work would require something more. That the project I had described was bigger than a project that I, one academic, could pursue effectively. This wasn’t an issue that would be fixed with a book. Or even with five books. It is instead a problem that required a new focus by many people, across disciplines, learning or relearning something important about how trust was built.

About six months ago, I was asked to consider locating this research at a very well established ethics center at Harvard University. Launched more than two decades ago, the Safra Center was first committed to building a program on ethics that would inspire similar programs at universities across the country. But the suggestion was made that after more than two decades of enormous success, it may make sense for the Center to consider focusing at least part of its work on a single problem. No one was certain this made sense, but I was asked to sketch a proposal that wouldn’t necessarily displace the current work of the Center, but which would become a primary focus of the Center, and complement its mission.

I did that, mapping a five year project that would draw together scholars from a wide range of disciplines to focus on this increasingly important problem of improper dependence. Harvard liked the proposal. In November, the Provost of Harvard University invited me to become the director of the Safra Center. Last week, I accepted the offer. In the summer, I will begin an appointment at the Harvard Law School, while directing the Safra Center.

This was a very difficult decision to make. Stanford is an extraordinary law school, and I have loved my time here. The students are brilliant, yet balanced. The faculty is brilliant, yet surprisingly humble. The Dean has an amazing vision of the future of legal education, and is redefining the law school in ways that I completely support. I am endlessly proud of the Center for Internet and Society and the Fair Use Project. I have the very best assistant in the world (and she promised at least 5 more years if I stayed). I have written four of my five books while here. I’m almost finished with my 6th, the book I am sure I will be most proud of. This is a place that has given an enormous amount to me, and from which I have benefited greatly.

On a personal level, too, this was a difficult decision. California has become our home. My wife is strongly attached to everything Californian; we both have very close friends here; I hadn’t ever imagined raising my kids in anything but the social and political environment of San Francisco. I still find it hard to imagine that I won’t, if not now, sometime. And the enormous beauty of the environment here still takes my breath away. A year into my time at Stanford, I was certain I would never leave. After a blissful weekend with my family last week, it still hasn’t registered that I will be leaving.

But in the end, it was impossible for me to be committed to the project while turning down this opportunity. It is not just the institution, nor the (partial) freedom from teaching. It is the chance to frame a large-scale project devoted to a large, important and complex problem. Once we saw it like this, my wife and I decided that returning to this old home was the right thing to do. And so in June, we will pack up the car for a cross country trek, back to Harvard.

Of course, I have no objective cause to complain. Harvard too is an extraordinary law school. As anyone who knows me knows, some of my closest friends in the world are at Harvard, including the Dean (or at least until Obama steals them all away). Harvard has grown and changed in wonderful ways over the past eight years. It will be an enormously exciting place to teach and learn.

But I regret deeply doing anything that is hurtful to those I respect and like. Worse, I hate doing anything that can be misunderstood. When Dean Sullivan recruited me, she said Stanford was paradise. I thought that was just a slogan. It isn’t. I consider the 8 years I have had here to be the most important and invigorating in my career. And I will miss everything about this place.

Some things won’t change. I will continue to work with Joe Trippi to build Change Congress. And I will continue to explore how best to incorporate this space (the Net) into this research. But I will do all of this, and my work, in the context of Harvard’s Safra Center and its Law School, and of old friendships, revived.

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  • http://xmlhacker.com/ M. David Peterson

    *WOW*! Soooo surreal…

    Well, if nothing else, I can’t wait to get to work on whatever you might have in store! I’m sure there are millions of people who feel the same!

  • Eric

    Best of luck, Larry.

  • http://tscott.typepad.com T Scott

    Big news indeed. But given the way you describe it, the decision makes sense. You’ll have the resources and infrastructure necessary to push this project in the direction it needs to go — and Cambridge will be a great place for the kids.

  • http://socialmedia.biz JD Lasica

    Sorry to lose you to the bitter cold of New England, Larry, but the movements you’ve help steer transcend geographic boundaries. Best of luck there.

    Hope to see you at the Creative Commons party next week.

  • http://www.fastforwardblog.com Rotkapchen

    I’ll be curious to track your progress. Your reference to ethics made me do a flashback on course of same name at the University of Washington that had just been introduced almost 30 years ago. While the course certainly made me think, the challenges are far more complex than ‘awareness’ can overcome.

    Flash forward 30 years. If you were to see that everything you did had no effect, what would you do with the funds instead?

    Whatever you do, while I typically disagree with your politics and perspective, I always respect your effort and the way that you approach it all. Best of luck.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    Good luck!

    Between the success of Internet fundraising effectively killing public financing, and the financial crisis, you’ll have a lot of work to do.

    Repeat:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2007/oct/25/comment.intellectualproperty

    “… talk to union organisers, or lawyers who represent poor defendants, or academics who’ve studied social movements. Don’t listen to anyone who has a book to hype, a conference speaking career, or most importantly, any involvement with start-up companies trying to get bought. Because what they sell is YOU.”

  • http://www.sean-graham.com Sean Graham

    I hadn’t ever imagined raising my kids in anything but the social and political environment of San Francisco.

    With decriminalized marijuana and same-sex marriage, Massachusetts is the new California, anyway… :)

    I wasn’t sure how I’d enjoy Boston before I moved here, but after almost 8 years, I can’t imagine living anywhere else.. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty close…

    I look forward to having you in our community, hopefully it will offer you as much as you’re bringing to it.

  • Rick

    Bittersweet, to be sure; but a mission clearly in need of your efforts. Best of luck.

  • http://butwait.blogspot.com Shelley

    Whoa.

    This is big. Wishing you all the best and looking forward to “following along at home” with your upcoming work….

  • http://eleven-twelve.net/ Alexander

    Good luck! California will miss you and Cambridge will be honored to have you around.

  • http://paul.myplaxo.com Paul Jacobson

    I can imagine how difficult it must be to leave Stanford based on what you have said about your time there. All the best with your move to Harvard and I look forward to the work you will be doing there.

  • http://blog.russnelson.com/ Russell Nelson

    I still think that the best way to achieve good ethical behavior is to take corrupt behavior off the table. If Congress is not allowed to interfere with religions, then religions will have no reason to try to influence Congress. If Congress is not allowed to interfere with business, then businesses will have no reason to try to influence Congress. If politicians aren’t allowed to undertake activities that can be corrupted, they won’t get the opportunity to be corrupted.

    We need a separation of business and state, instead of the mercantilism that we have now.

  • KD

    Professor, your conviction has always been an inspiration. Best of luck in this endeavor. I hope you find everything you’re looking for.

  • http://www.forctlawyers.com W.R. Chambers

    Wow! At least three huge commitments (including as I imagine it at least two very significant personal sacrifices) that will surely benefit the entire country. The last entry in the News Archives listed on the Safra Center’s website (as of 8:am22 on Dec. 13, 2008) is dated September 1, 1997. That is about to change in a big way.

  • http://www.jemimus.net Robert Kloosterhuis

    What a difficult and courageous decision for you and your wife to make. I wish you the best of luck in this endeavor Larry!

  • http://hooversbiz.com Tim Walker

    Best of luck, sir. I can only hope that someday in the future you’re in a position to make a similar announcement about decamping here to Austin.

  • Harvard student

    Congratulations! You’ve made many of us *very* happy…

  • Pablo

    Congratulations Professor Lessig. Where better to study the subtle effects of money than at a center carrying the name of so globally esteemed a banker? ;)

  • Laura Sydell

    Larry,
    I am so sorry to hear that the bay area is losing you. Fortunately, they have ISDN lines at Harvard if I ever need to interview you.
    All the best,
    Laura Sydell

  • http://www.bunsnip.com Sra

    Your presence at Stanford was what made me decide to apply there for law school next year. So now I won’t feel as disappointed when they don’t let me in :) Congratulations on this exciting move.

  • http://www.ramirocaso.com Ramiro Caso

    Larry, I’m a big fan of you, because you represent almost everything I believe in. I never leave comments on your blog, but this time I want to wish you the best in this important new path that you and your family will start to walk next summer. Keep up the great work. I will do my best to help you share all you knowledge here in Latin America. You are an example to follow. I admire you deeply I wish you all the best!!!
    Ramiro Caso

  • http://www.timwu.org Tim Wu

    Ah

  • http://www.timwu.org Tim Wu

    I still say everyone should come to New York, but it looks like I am in the minority

  • http://catesfamilyfarm.com Richard Cates

    Dear Larry, I have the utmost respect for your dedication to such a fundamental issue in America; I want to participate in a meaningful way over time. Thank you for your passion, leadership, and intergity. Your cousin, Dick

  • Stanford CS ’07

    I’m sad for Stanford and Silicon Valley to be losing Prof. Lessig, but he’s going to back a great place to do what needs to be done. Good to hear that his wife is supporting the move. I’ll hold onto the dream that he’ll come back to California and represent us in Congress some day.

  • http://supremacyclaus.blogspot.com Supremacy Claus

    Just another lawyer running his con.

  • SWLong

    Congrats Larry! Best of luck in Mass.!

  • Neeru

    I’ll buy you a hot chocolate when it’s cold! I almost applied for a fellowship at the Safra Center for next year. Glad to hear you’ll be there.

  • Shepherd Raimi

    Are you going to the Safra center at Harvard or the Berkman center at Harvard? And what is the difference between them?

  • http://russelldad.blogspot.com Paul Russell

    Wow! Congratulations!

    I’m thrilled to hear your moving to New England! I’ve wanted to see you speak live for a while, but most of the time you’re a bit too far away. It will be great to have you in the neighborhood! Good luck with your move!

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