March 9, 2006
Harvard, Lawrence Summers, & University OrthodoxyBy Richard L. Cravatts
As if observers needed yet another example of higher education's big lie, Lawrence Summers' recent ignoble loss of the presidency of Harvard University confirms the reality that, despite its claims to the contrary, academia is no longer the certain intellectual marketplace for open discourse and free speech, even on matters of controversy and wide debate.
Widely praised by much of the student body, alumni, and many faculty members for his vision and ability to take a hard look at large financial, ethical, and managerial challenges at Harvard, Summers nevertheless was done in by a core group of Faculty of Arts and Sciences professors, scolds on the intellectual left whose tolerance for freedom of speech and ideas seems to be extended only to those harboring viewpoints identical to their own.
That Summers, a vigorous and aggressive intellect, dared to interject diverse viewpoints during his tenure seems to be what finally did him in. Consider, for instance, one of the first incidents which drew the ire of the faculty critics: Summers' call to the Harvard community, after the events of September 11th, for greater feelings of patriotism and a reevaluation of the school's 34—year ban of the Reserve Officers Training Program (ROTC) on campus.
Patriotism, Summers said at the Kennedy School of Government, might actually be a positive and virtuous emotion for a wounded nation. These were, one would think, not outrageous, jingoistic sentiments for a university president to express, not long after the nation was wounded by homicidal terrorists. But to a large number of Harvard faculty, these calls for patriotic spirit were an inexcusable affront to their clearly—defined, elitist, and long—standing animus to the military.
It is one thing to reject patriotism and support of the military during a time of war and be insulted to have it suggested to you as a positive thing; it is another, more incredible, act to embrace and encourage the ideology of the perceived enemy of the United States instead. But a faculty panel felt no compunction in committing this very act when they chose Zayed M. Yasin as a speaker at Harvard's 2002 commencement, whose provocative speech was originally titled, 'American Jihad.' His faculty supporters apparently saw no insensitivity in using that incendiary term as a theme just after 9/11, nor did it seem to bother them that Mr. Yasin was a current supporter of the Holy Land Foundation, an organization that raised funds for Hamas, among other terrorist groups.
A second bold moral position that Summers assumed was his controversial 2002 speech in which he rejected a divestment petition to withdraw funds from Israel signed by, among others, seventy—four Harvard professors. He observed that anti—Semitic and anti—Israel attitudes, once the invidious products of fringe groups and right—wing cranks, had begun to appear on college campuses, that 'profoundly anti—Israel views are increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities. Serious and thoughtful people,' he said in the most pointed section of his comments, 'are advocating and taking actions that are anti—Semitic in their effect if not their intent.'
One thing moralists despise is being questioned about their integrity, and so it was with the indignant petition signers and their fellow travelers. They accused Summers of being intellectually oppressive and 'stifling debate' by questioning the morality of their actions and raising a point about the true intent of the divestment effort. A special standard was being applied to Israel, condemning it for behavior tolerated elsewhere.
That same sensitivity to language about Israel and anti—Semitism did not seem to faze faculty members, however, when Harvard's English department in 2002 invited poet Tom Paulin to speak as a prestigious Morris Gray Lecturer, and did so, according to English Department chair, Lawrence Buell, to affirm a 'belief in the importance of free speech as a principle and practice in the academy.' That of course is a noble and purposeful role for universities, save for the fact that Paulin, poet and lecturer at Oxford University, had been quoted articulating the odious sentiment that "Brooklyn—born" Jewish settlers should be "shot dead." 'I think they are Nazis, racists, I feel nothing but hatred for them," he told Egypt's al—Ahram Weekly. "I can understand how suicide bombers feel. . . . I think attacks on civilians in fact boost morale."
The other incendiary topic on American campuses is, of course, race, and for no other topic have administrations been so cowered, shamed, and cajoled into intellectual subservience. The case in point here was Summers' conflict with the popular professor, Cornell West. Mr. West, one of only 14 coveted 'university professors' at Harvard, was chided by Summers about grade inflation in West's popular classes, an absence of scholarly output, and questionable extracurricular activities, such as producing a 'hip—hop' CD, working on the failed presidential campaign of Al Sharpton, and, writing pop culture, rather than scholarly, books.
Characteristic of liberal faculty views was West's'—and his supporters'—reaction to Summers' notion that striving for excellence in scholarship and standards in student grading were reasonable objectives for university professors at the world's greatest university: In a huff, West resigned and packed his things for Princeton, unable to suffer the perceived 'disrespect' he received. And the point had been made and the damage done to Mr. Summers, just as campus liberals wished.
What professor West left behind at Harvard was a group of courses and academic research that are characterized by a latent racism of their own, focusing on permanent racial struggles, institutionalized racism, and texts that regularly denounce capitalism and fundamentally question the racial ethics of white America. 'If some of the department's courses are fine, most of them are victimology in its Sunday best; some even verge on fantasy,' says John H. McWhorter, Stanford linguist and author, commenting on some of the department's assigned texts.
If Summers had been able dodge several ideological bullets in his first encounters with radical faculty members, his final misstep was the fatal shot. Many will remember the near universal opprobrium he found directed at him after his informal remarks at a January 2004 conference on women in science in which he suggested, off—the—cuff and guardedly, that the absence of women from science faculties might be linked to superior quantitative reasoning on the part of men.
In the firestorm from angry leftist and feminist critics on the faculty that followed, Summers was denounced for even daring to utter words that were one, plausible explanation of the dearth of women in the math and sciences faculties of elite universities: that innate differences in biology might explain the disparity. That particular explanation is, of course, one which liberals and feminists will not accept or abide—the root cause, instead, must be discrimination, exclusion, or institutional policy that overlooks, shuns, or otherwise excludes qualified women from achieving academic rank.
Discussion about sex, like race, is a touchy activity on the Harvard campus—at least when it comes from President Summers or other conservative voices. However, the arts and sciences faculty who were so outraged and driven to intellectual hysteria by the comments on women's innate scientific abilities do not seem so revulsed when, each year in April, "Gaypril' happens on the Harvard campus, a month—long series of activities sponsored by the Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender and Supporters Alliance to address "marginalization and oppression that exists as a result of stigmatization of queer sexuality and gender."
Gaypril events have kicked of with performances that included a "story entitled 'My First Time' about scandalous escapades with a bisexual male model in Lebanon."
Feeling strongly that one—sex, so—called 'heteronormative,' toilets on campus were a concept of great emotional concern, the list of stimulating events also included "Toilet Training," a documentary about "discrimination linked to gender—segregated bathrooms." Why would this type of scholarly inquiry be necessary on the Harvard campus? That should be obvious, according to BGLTSA publicity chairman Adam P. Schneider. "For transgendered people,' he said, 'going to a specific bathroom can be a very stigmatizing experience."
'No great university can long remain great if it attempts to enforce the equivalent of a religious creed on its members,' said Stephan Thernstrom, Winthrop Professor of History at Harvard, one of President Summers' few outspoken supporters.
If this community Professor Thernstrom spoke of is to flourish—or even survive—after Summers' departure, real discourse and 'freedom of inquiry' will have to be encouraged and welcomed, not stifled in the name of political correctness.
Richard L. Cravatts. Ph.D., a lecturer at Emmanuel College, Boston University, Tufts University, and Emerson College, writes frequently on religion, social policy, housing development, law, business, and politics.