Taking Down the Harvard President

Lawrence Summers resigned from the presidency of Harvard University on February 22, 2006.  The five-year anniversary of the event gives us an opportunity to look at a device used by progressive-oriented professors and media. "Framing," as they call it, refers to the contextualizing of phenomena according to a "consciousness" that makes the progressive take on them seem real.  The most notable theorist on "Framing" is Berkeley professor George Lakoff, whose 2004 bestseller Don't Think of an Elephant advised activists on how to narrate issues in a way that would get people to vote Democratic.

Over a period of a few months, Summers was re-framed, leading to his being in effect forced out of his presidency.

"Harvard University Sees Drop in Female Junior Professors," an article in the Boston Globe on Feb 22, 2004, covered the issue of the lack of women professors at Harvard.  It began:

Harvard University has seen a sharp drop in the proportion of women serving as junior professors in the humanities, according to newly released numbers, leaving officials anxious about a problem they had never expected to face in 2004.

In the third paragraph the article addressed Harvard President Lawrence Summers and the issue.  It said:

"I think it's a disturbing trend that requires attention," Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers said in an interview.  "The key to ultimately diversifying the faculty is developing as strong a pipeline as possible."

"Harvard University Sees Drop in Female Junior Professors" goes on to describe why there were fewer women at Harvard.  "One reason there are fewer junior female professors in Harvard's humanities departments is that some of them have been promoted, getting tenure and joining the ranks of senior faculty," it says.  "Some wonder," the article goes on plaintively, "whether female academics are more often choosing not to make the personal sacrifices required for a top-flight academic career, just as more women with MBAs and law degrees have been stepping off the corporate ladder in the last few years."  The article said that "Sensitive to ... criticism, Harvard has made a conscious effort in the last few years to promote more assistant and associate professors."  All in all, what the reader who read "Harvard University Sees Drop in Female Junior Professors" comes away with is that the issue of women professors at Harvard was a serious one, and that President Lawrence Summers was serious in addressing it.

What a different take the reader gets, however, when he picks up -- with the same byline -- "Harvard Offers Fewer Tenured Jobs to Women," which ran in the Globe on Sept 22, 2004.  The article began:

Harvard University's Faculty of Arts and Sciences has offered a declining percentage of its senior jobs to women in each year of Lawrence H. Summers's term as president, according to figures from the university.


During the 2000-2001 academic year, the last of former president Neil L. Rudenstine's term, 36 percent of Harvard's offers of tenured jobs were made to women.  Last year, 2003-2004, women received only 13 percent of the tenured job offers.  Out of a total of 32 offers last year, just four were made to women, and of the 22 candidates who accepted, only one was a woman.

The drop has prompted 26 professors to sign a letter contending that the school will see a continuing decline in women on the faculty if Summers does not take action.

"When you see statistics like that, you have to wonder whether the president of the university takes women scholars seriously," said Ingrid Monson, a music professor who says she did not sign the letter because she was away when it circulated.  "Anybody in academia who has heard these numbers has been shocked."

The reader looking at "Harvard Offers Fewer Tenured Jobs to Women" comes away seeing the issue of women professors now as an "injustice," and Summers now as distant from women, oddly unsympathetic to their concerns and maybe even biased against them.  Lawrence Summers, a renowned economist and Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration, and who at the time of his appointment as Harvard president was seen as serving 10 and even 20 years, was a man who discriminated against women, or at least averted his eyes from the injustice that plagued them.  A portrait of Summers almost diametrically opposed to that given him only seven months earlier, it would be the one applied in news coverage of the fated January 2005 MIT conference that led to the furor against Summers, and in stories right up to his resignation in February 2006.

Hannah Arendt describes how believing "consciousness" an avenue to knowing is fraught with peril.  In her The Life of the Mind she discussed how "while perceiving an object outside myself I decide to concentrate on my perception on the act of seeing instead of the seen object, it is as if I lost the original object, because it loses its impact on me."  In concentrating on perception, she changes her focus away from the object at hand and deals merely with her impression of the object, and in so doing knowledge is deprived of its realness and becomes only image.  To use one's mind in such a fashion, Arendt says, amounts to "withdrawing mentally from everything that is present and close at hand," and that "'consciousness' becomes a full substitute for the outside world presented as impression or image."  In such a state the person becomes a "new entity" that exists "in complete independence and sovereignty" and defensive against realities that threaten his own subjectivities.  Arendt calls all of this the "bracketing" of reality, or the "getting rid of it by treating it as though it were nothing but mere ‘impression.'"  She says it "has remained one of the great temptations of the 'professional thinkers.'"

In his assessment of the Globe's reporting of the tumultuous events at Harvard the reader can be forgiven if he feels that the journalist substituted a politically inspired consciousness for knowledge.  He can be forgiven if he sees that the chroniclers of our time withdraw from the objects of our world at hand, and bracket the facts of phenomena according to unreal impressions.

John B. Parrott, Ph.D. is a former Air Force officer and college professor. He is the author of Being Like God: How American Elites Abuse Power and Politics, University Press of America, 2003.
Lawrence Summers resigned from the presidency of Harvard University on February 22, 2006.  The five-year anniversary of the event gives us an opportunity to look at a device used by progressive-oriented professors and media. "Framing," as they call it, refers to the contextualizing of phenomena according to a "consciousness" that makes the progressive take on them seem real.  The most notable theorist on "Framing" is Berkeley professor George Lakoff, whose 2004 bestseller Don't Think of an Elephant advised activists on how to narrate issues in a way that would get people to vote Democratic.

Over a period of a few months, Summers was re-framed, leading to his being in effect forced out of his presidency.

"Harvard University Sees Drop in Female Junior Professors," an article in the Boston Globe on Feb 22, 2004, covered the issue of the lack of women professors at Harvard.  It began:

Harvard University has seen a sharp drop in the proportion of women serving as junior professors in the humanities, according to newly released numbers, leaving officials anxious about a problem they had never expected to face in 2004.

In the third paragraph the article addressed Harvard President Lawrence Summers and the issue.  It said:

"I think it's a disturbing trend that requires attention," Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers said in an interview.  "The key to ultimately diversifying the faculty is developing as strong a pipeline as possible."

"Harvard University Sees Drop in Female Junior Professors" goes on to describe why there were fewer women at Harvard.  "One reason there are fewer junior female professors in Harvard's humanities departments is that some of them have been promoted, getting tenure and joining the ranks of senior faculty," it says.  "Some wonder," the article goes on plaintively, "whether female academics are more often choosing not to make the personal sacrifices required for a top-flight academic career, just as more women with MBAs and law degrees have been stepping off the corporate ladder in the last few years."  The article said that "Sensitive to ... criticism, Harvard has made a conscious effort in the last few years to promote more assistant and associate professors."  All in all, what the reader who read "Harvard University Sees Drop in Female Junior Professors" comes away with is that the issue of women professors at Harvard was a serious one, and that President Lawrence Summers was serious in addressing it.

What a different take the reader gets, however, when he picks up -- with the same byline -- "Harvard Offers Fewer Tenured Jobs to Women," which ran in the Globe on Sept 22, 2004.  The article began:

Harvard University's Faculty of Arts and Sciences has offered a declining percentage of its senior jobs to women in each year of Lawrence H. Summers's term as president, according to figures from the university.


During the 2000-2001 academic year, the last of former president Neil L. Rudenstine's term, 36 percent of Harvard's offers of tenured jobs were made to women.  Last year, 2003-2004, women received only 13 percent of the tenured job offers.  Out of a total of 32 offers last year, just four were made to women, and of the 22 candidates who accepted, only one was a woman.

The drop has prompted 26 professors to sign a letter contending that the school will see a continuing decline in women on the faculty if Summers does not take action.

"When you see statistics like that, you have to wonder whether the president of the university takes women scholars seriously," said Ingrid Monson, a music professor who says she did not sign the letter because she was away when it circulated.  "Anybody in academia who has heard these numbers has been shocked."

The reader looking at "Harvard Offers Fewer Tenured Jobs to Women" comes away seeing the issue of women professors now as an "injustice," and Summers now as distant from women, oddly unsympathetic to their concerns and maybe even biased against them.  Lawrence Summers, a renowned economist and Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration, and who at the time of his appointment as Harvard president was seen as serving 10 and even 20 years, was a man who discriminated against women, or at least averted his eyes from the injustice that plagued them.  A portrait of Summers almost diametrically opposed to that given him only seven months earlier, it would be the one applied in news coverage of the fated January 2005 MIT conference that led to the furor against Summers, and in stories right up to his resignation in February 2006.

Hannah Arendt describes how believing "consciousness" an avenue to knowing is fraught with peril.  In her The Life of the Mind she discussed how "while perceiving an object outside myself I decide to concentrate on my perception on the act of seeing instead of the seen object, it is as if I lost the original object, because it loses its impact on me."  In concentrating on perception, she changes her focus away from the object at hand and deals merely with her impression of the object, and in so doing knowledge is deprived of its realness and becomes only image.  To use one's mind in such a fashion, Arendt says, amounts to "withdrawing mentally from everything that is present and close at hand," and that "'consciousness' becomes a full substitute for the outside world presented as impression or image."  In such a state the person becomes a "new entity" that exists "in complete independence and sovereignty" and defensive against realities that threaten his own subjectivities.  Arendt calls all of this the "bracketing" of reality, or the "getting rid of it by treating it as though it were nothing but mere ‘impression.'"  She says it "has remained one of the great temptations of the 'professional thinkers.'"

In his assessment of the Globe's reporting of the tumultuous events at Harvard the reader can be forgiven if he feels that the journalist substituted a politically inspired consciousness for knowledge.  He can be forgiven if he sees that the chroniclers of our time withdraw from the objects of our world at hand, and bracket the facts of phenomena according to unreal impressions.

John B. Parrott, Ph.D. is a former Air Force officer and college professor. He is the author of Being Like God: How American Elites Abuse Power and Politics, University Press of America, 2003.

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