Monday, April 11, 2005

The Unspeakable Sins of Larry Summers

It is no secret that Larry Summers maintains a peculiar relationship with the conservative organizations at Harvard University. The Harvard Republican Club may be the only group on campus that still sends him a holiday greeting card. I am sure that this is not the position in which the Clinton Democrat imagined himself when he took the job. I am also fairly certain that this is little comfort to him as he endures the lashes of just about everyone else. The latest episode has left him now almost completely isolated among the academic elite.

The situation is grave indeed. You see, Summers did not just make an insensitive remark or transgress the bounds of decency; he committed a wanton act of sacrilege. Surely Larry’s funny little heresy must have brought even the statue of old John Harvard to weep as the tourists rub his foot. It is doubtful that this sinner can ever be cleansed of his iniquities, and he must be excommunicated and cast down from the exalted tower.

For those who don’t really care about Harvard politics (I don’t blame you), this is only the latest apostasy. The recent symbolic, no confidence vote by the faculty is the result of a long struggle that finally came to a head. The truth is that the faculty of Harvard University has never liked the round, sometimes sleepy Summers. Unlike Neil Rudenstine, his milquetoast predecessor, President Summers has constantly been stirring up trouble with the faculty like a dance contest at a Baptist picnic. In 2002, he dared to tangle horns with AfAm Scholar and Fletcher University Professor Cornel West, questioning West’s dearth of recent scholarly work. Dr. West had been busy working on Al Sharpton’s exploratory committee, playing the role of the wise elder councilman in the “Matrix” sequel and producing his R&B/hip-hop CD. The audacity, the temerity, the barbarity! I guess Summers wasn’t trippin’ on the “70s Song.”

Summers called upon the faculty to address the problem of grade inflation at the college. The blue blood boiled at this affront to the faculty’s evaluation procedures. Although Summers may have couched his language in concern for the academic integrity of the students and the university, the faculty knew this as merely a veiled assault on fairness, tolerance, and pedagogical freedom. Grade inflation, after all, was an issue that had been brought to the forefront by the agitator, Kenan Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield. Mansfield, one of a precious few conservatives on the faculty, enjoys committing a thought crime and instigating hysterical fits among his more enlightened colleagues once every three years or so. No Harvard president should associate himself intellectually with such a dastardly man or his profane suggestions.

Finally, Summers blasphemed that most righteous Crimson Crusade, the total dissociation of the university with the United States Military. Summers has been a relatively consistent supporter of the Reserve Officers Training Corps and particularly its student cadets. The prodigal president, in fact, was the first Harvard President to preside over the ROTC commissioning ceremony since the faculty sanctimoniously voted to ban the organization from official recognition in 1971 amidst rabid anti-war protests. While the war in Vietnam had quieted down by the late ‘80s, the faculty found another lofty justification to continue its disassociation with the group. The faculty reasoned in 1990 that the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy intolerably ran counter to the University’s strict tolerance guidelines. I have no doubt that for most of the faculty, whose aspirations of fame and fortune in the real world were cut short by the need to find refuge from Vietnam in academia or in Canada, the gay rights aspect of the debate is a very convenient subterfuge to continue their deep resentment of the military and ROTC. In the same breath in which he praised the ROTC cadets, Summers lamented the “cleavage between coastal elites and certain mainstream values” that had developed as a result of the Vietnam era. Sounding more like an apostle of that moralistic bigot who now occupies the White House than of his old boss, Summers described the war on terror as a conflict “between wrong and right, fear and hope, and…without the moral ambiguity of Vietnam.” Wrong and Right? You could feel the collective outrage.

It is not necessarily the views that Summers expressed in these instances that have made him a favorite among conservatives at Harvard, although certainly many of them rejoice in his stand on scholarly diligence, academic integrity, and patriotism. What is most commendable is his willingness to stand up to the faculty and its dogma. It takes an incredible amount of courage to confront the entrenched prejudices of the powerful and vindictive elite. I believe that conservatives on campus identify their own struggle with his. I certainly did.

I will say that during my own time at Harvard I never really faced any overt persecution based upon my political beliefs. You often encountered disbelief rather than anger. Disclosing your political colors was sometimes like revealing that you are a serial killer. “You’re a conservative? You seem like such a nice guy…we would have never expected it.” I was never worried that I would be treated unfairly; I was more concerned with two trends that I perceive as feeding off of each other and rotting away at the fundamental virtue of the university. The first is the lack of true, respectful diversity of thought among students but more pronouncedly among the faculty. The second is the silencing and deligitimization of dissent on issues that are earnestly important to the academic dialogue and to the general public.

Diversity is a wonderful goal for a university to pursue. A community representing a variety of rich backgrounds strengthens the university by broadening and deepening the discourse within the arena of ideas. Fairness and justice are admirable, but the free exchange of thought is the central concept around which the academy is formed. If only the university would concern itself as much with intellectual diversity as it does with diversity of other sorts. Students and the institution itself suffer just as much from homogeneity of ideas as they did when Harvard Yard was populated entirely by wealthy young men with roman numerals after their last names. It is absurd that a university which prides itself in reflecting the larger community could get it so terribly wrong when it comes to representing the views of the nearly 40% of Americans who self-identify as conservative. Southerners, too, are peculiarly absent on campus. It is no wonder the students and faculty of so many campuses were so deeply stunned at the results of November’s election. If all those around you are ideologically indistinguishable, you start to get the idea that everyone, at least everyone that matters, must think that way. I am still waiting to see the masses that were supposed to take to the streets and burn the cities if George W. Bush were reelected.

The disparity among faculty is even more alarming. (See Deb Oborny’s “Those Who Can Indoctrinate, Teach” below) In a study which I am sure will be cited from now until the end of time by those on our side, Santa Clara University Professor Daniel Klein found that among a survey of 1,000 of the nation’s university faculty, Democrats outnumber Republicans in the humanities and social sciences. This is about twice the disparity found thirty years ago. If you are comfortable at taking party identification as a proxy for ideology, the numbers shock the conscience. Granted, there need not be anything close to parity in ideology among professors, but the gap should certainly not be widening at the current pace. While of course most of us good conservatives would eschew a call for affirmative action for ideology, this data bespeaks an institutional bias that must be acknowledged and understood by the whole academy and by the public at large. This bias affects not only the academics themselves, but also the course of scholarly pursuits given legitimacy by the university and the impact had upon the minds of students. (My fellow Federalist, Mike McClellan, who attended that New Haven school, is much better at covering this topic on his blog than I could hope to be.)

The other deadly venom poisoning the foundation of the university is so mired in a disturbing hypocrisy that is almost comedic. That is the curbing of speech on campus. I cannot think of anything more contemptible and contrary to the goal of the academy than the speech police that have invaded the collegiate halls and perched themselves upon a pedestal, hovering over the discussions of students and scholars. Among the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of property under fair and well-regulated conditions, apparently now exists the right to be free from offensive language. Hate speech is the watch word these days. The university should be the last place where the free expression of ideas is shackled no matter how shocking they may seem to the enlightened and sensitive souls. False, even malicious ideas should not be silenced in what should be a marketplace of ideas. Widely held beliefs remained unchallenged and gradually seem unassailable. When points of view cannot even be discussed let alone seriously advocated within the university, everyone loses from the lack of discussion.

When Larry Summers made his latest remark, the call at Harvard was not made for a discussion on the contribution of women to the fields of math and science, nor was there a discussion about behavioral psychology or genetics. What did take place in Cambridge looked more like what happened a few score back in another Massachusetts town.

Where were those defenders of academic liberty that rushed valiantly to the rescue of University of Colorado Professor Ward Churchill when he compared 9/11 victims to Nazi collaborators? Apparently Churchill’s paranoid ramblings are more worthy of protection then Summers’ positing that men and women might somehow be different. It is revealing to me about the value system of the academic elite that Summers’ comments could elicit the same emotions as those educed from most Americans upon hearing Churchill’s remarks. I do not think that Churchill should be summarily dismissed, primarily because I would not want to see him walk away with millions from the resulting lawsuit. However, I do think that Professor Churchill’s scholarship is rightfully open to question as are Summers’ credentials. I would not venture to speculate myself about the man, but I would take to heart the comments of a friend of mine from Currier House who had occasion to deal personally with him. Churchill was dead wrong and the best way to express that is to expose him to scrutiny. The outraged left should take the same approach to Summers rather than calling for his charred corpse.

Larry Summers’ gumption in challenging the self-righteous behemoth was a breath of fresh air for conservatives at Harvard who for decades had seen the administration cowed by the faculty. Summers, perhaps not an ally so much as an enemy’s enemy, honestly tried to address the problems of academic vitality and cultural relevance within the university only to realize full well the consequences of questioning the doctrine of the mighty. I only hope his soul may be spared from eternal perdition.

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