February 22, 2006
The Left Seizes HarvardBy Thomas Lifson
The American left, long in decline, has shored up its base, definitively seizing the high ground of American academia. The resignation of Lawrence Summers as president of Harvard University, the nation's oldest, and the world's richest and most prestigious university, marks a significant coup d'etat for the left.
A faction, only a plurality within one segment of the university, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, has proven its ability to drive from office a brilliant and energetic leader who had been committed to pushing Harvard a little bit back toward the political center.
The breaking point began to unfold when Summers dared to entertain as a possible hypothesis that there might be inherent differences between men and women, which in turn might affect the success females experience in mathematical and scientific endeavors. It has now been established that orthodox feminism, not free intellectual inquiry, determines what may be said by the leaders of Harvard. 'Veritas,' Latin for 'truth' should be replaced as Harvard's official motto by some other expression. Perhaps the motto of the Red Guards during China's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution: 'Politics in command.'
But Summers' sins were multiple. He dared to suggest to Afro—American Studies Professor Cornell West that recording rap albums was not consistent with his scholarly function. He encouraged Harvard to return ROTC to campus, from which it had been expelled in an earlier wave of leftist bullying in 1969, and commended the value of patriotism. He spoke of the problem of grade inflation. And he dared to suggest that anti—Israel agitation, in the absence of comparable agitation over the same issues existing in other countries, smelled of anti—Semitism.
Summers was correct on each and every one of these points. Almost undoubtedly, a broad majority of Americans would support him, if informed of the specifics and asked about them. But America's campuses are becoming further and further removed from America's mainstream values, a situation which will benefit neither academia nor society in the long run.
The visible abandonment of the disinterested pursuit of the truth at a flagship institution undermines the rationale for taxpayer—funded grants and loans, subsidies to state institutions, private philanthropy, and ultimately to the prestige which is the foundation of the academy's power in American life. At a time when knowledge and innovation matter more than ever, a critical generator of these resources is going on the fritz.
One would think that when leadership of an institution powered by a nearly $26 billion endowment is being contested, there would be a fight to the end. Instead, Summers preemptively surrendered. Presumably this means that he understood he lacked the backing (where it counts — on the Harvard Corporation) to endure in the face of a challenge.
What is bizarre is that the challenge came by only from leftists, who so far have failed to demonstrate more than a plurality of support within only one of the many faculties which comprise Harvard.
The Harvard Corporation, which governs Harvard University, could boast that it is the oldest corporation in the Western Hemisphere. Some within Harvard like to note that Harvard is also the world's first decentralized corporation. Each of the faculties — such as Law, Medicine, Business, Dentistry, Design, Public Health, Education, Divinity, and the grand daddy of them all, Arts and Sciences — has its own endowment account, sets its own tuition, appoints its own faculty (tenure is subject to approval of the president — one of the few direct powers Summers enjoyed), and generally governs itself.
There is an old saying within administrative circles at Harvard: 'Every Tub its Own Bottom,' (so familiar it is abbreviated ETOB) meaning (among other things) that the price of such autonomy is that the impecunious Divinity School or Education School must scramble to pay their bills, never mind that the Faculties of Medicine, Law and Business experience much greater success in dunning their wealthy graduates for donations.
The Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which includes humanities and social sciences faculty members, is the most leftist—inclined among the various 'tubs.' Because the FAS teaches undergraduates, as well as graduate students not enrolled in the professional schools, it tends to be regarded as the 'real' university. Its classrooms and offices dominate Harvard Yard and the central campus in Cambridge familiar to most visitors.
Because so many undergraduates go on to enjoy great material success, the FAS is able to raise significant monies from alumni, and receives large gifts from outsiders to establish academic programs, research institutes, and other organs for funding and carrying out scholarship and teaching.
The seven members of the Harvard Corporation evidently failed to rally around Summers, even though he serves as one of them. The fatal weakness of this power elite is that much of university life depends on willing adherence to norms and standards, rather than on incentives, detailed regulations, and penalties. This reliance on social control mechanisms rather than formal structures, empowers minority factions to create such a ruckus that fears of 'ungovernability' arise. As the Boston Globe editorialized today, 'Summers was losing the ability to be effective....'
The lesson is now clear. Even the most powerful of universities can be bullied by a minority within a minority segment of the university. By yelling and protesting, by embarrassing with a potential vote of non—support, and ultimately by threatening non—compliance with the sacred informal rules governing academic life, the wealthy and influential members of even the most prestigious governing boards can be cowed.
Because Harvard, for better or worse, is a role model for much of the rest of American higher education, the lesson will be learned on every campus. Truth is out and the power of protestors is in.
A nascent dark age threatens the heart of our national ability to discover new knowledge, right at the critical point where young minds are trained and basic outlines of knowledge are set. It does not augur well for anyone other than enemies of our civilization, who reject new knowledge and innovation.
Thomas Lifson is the editor and publisher of The American Thinker. He received graduate degrees from and served as a member of both the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Faculty of Business Administration at Harvard.