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Summers Beyond Harvard

Summers Beyond Harvard

February 25, 2005

Monday's Harvard Crimson revealed that 56 percent of Harvard's faculty members believe that the fallout from President Lawrence Summers' statements about women and science has diminished the university's reputation. Yet as a visiting professor at Harvard this term -- someone at the institution but not of it -- I have found the Summers affair and its aftermath dispiriting not because of its short-term effect on Harvard's standing (the university surely will remain the nation's premier institution of higher education) but due to its possible long-term, harmful, effects on the academy.

Many aspects of this case, of course, are peculiar to Harvard: questions about Summers' efforts to expand the Allston section of the campus; a feeling among many professors that the president has not treated them with appropriate respect; a belief that Summers uses an overly centralized approach in running the university. At Tuesday's faculty meeting, Caroline Hoxby, an economics professor, observed that concern over Summers' management style, not a battle of "right versus left" about political correctness, accounted for the faculty uprising.

Many figures beyond the campus, however, have aggressively tried to frame this issue as one of ideology. Princeton's president, Shirley Tilghman, for example, joined in a statement rebuking Summers which subtly attempted to assert the hegemony of her own dubious educational vision. Yale's graduate student union, meanwhile, cited Summers' comments and their institution's alleged lack of day care facilities to demand that Yale rework its tenure evaluation process.

Given these non-Harvard patterns, the reaction to Summers' comments bequeaths three potential problems. First, though the president's address ranged widely over possible tensions between promoting diversity and upholding standards, the firestorm that greeted his thesis about women and science threatens to discredit other, more valid, points that he made. Summers opened his substantive remarks by urging the compilation of "hard data" regarding "what the quality of marginal hires are when major diversity efforts are mounted," if only to rebut the "right-wing critics" who fear "clear abandonments of quality standards." If members of the academy want to sustain popular support for diversity initiatives, he noted, "they have to be willing to ask the question in ways that could face any possible answer that came out."

As Harvard has joined other elite universities in continuing to demand high-quality research accomplishments while striving for greater faculty diversity, its answer to Summers' question no doubt would be satisfactory. Some non-elite institutions, on the other hand, have refashioned their personnel processes to make achieving "diversity" the preeminent, rather than a complementary, goal. The best examples: Virginia Tech, which took hiring decisions away from academic departments and gave them to a pro-"diversity" dean; and the University of Arizona, which is considering recruiting critical masses of "diverse professors who have shared intellectual interests," thereby coupling a pursuit of diversity with a desire for ideological conformity among the faculty. It could be that professors hired according to such models will outperform those selected under more accepted standards of merit. Yet this proposition cannot be accepted simply on the faith of assertions from its most zealous advocates.

Second, some of the reaction to Summers' comments reinforced concerns offered in a perceptive 2004 essay by Mark Bauerlein in The Chronicle of Higher Education, which analyzed higher education through the lens of the "law of group polarization." In such an environment, according to Bauerlein, faculty members "lose all sense of the range of legitimate opinion," leaving them "no idea how extreme [their] vision sounds to many ears." For instance, the professor who initially objected to Summers' comments did so, she said, because "this kind of bias makes me physically ill." At last week's Harvard faculty meeting, one critic questioned the president's fitness by pointing to environmental policies he had proposed when running the World Bank in the early 1990s. Has the academy reached the point where hearing distasteful ideas makes professors sick, or where supporters of "globalization" should be excluded from the ranks of college presidents?

The reaction to this controversy from outside higher education brings into relief professors' tone deafness as to how non-academic figures interpret such comments. It came as little surprise that neoconservative iconoclast Andrew Sullivan defended the Harvard president. But so too did the liberal editorial pages of The Washington Post and, less enthusiastically, The Boston Globe. The Post concluded that if "Summers loses his job for the crime of positing a politically incorrect hypothesis -- or even if he pays some lesser price for it -- the chilling effect on free inquiry will harm everyone."

Finally, despite the more temperate atmosphere at Tuesday's emergency faculty meeting, the impression outside of Harvard remains of an initial campus reaction -- as described by Judaic studies professor Ruth Wisse -- that left Summers "sounding more like a prisoner in a Soviet show trial than the original thinker that he is." This legacy risks discouraging other administrators from articulating views perceived as politically incorrect -- even when doing so would serve their university's best interests.

Such an outcome would especially harm the well-being of less elite institutions, whose most serious personnel-related problem, which is growing more pronounced, is a lack of intellectual diversity among the professoriate. Even Brown president Ruth Simmons recently worried about the "chilling effect caused by the dominance of certain voices on the spectrum of moral and political thought" on campus. Peer pressure for faculty to produce quality scholarship, alumni and parental involvement, and student demand for an intellectually diverse range of courses provide built-in checks to ensure that elite institutions hire on the basis of merit rather than a candidate's perceived belief system, at least most of the time. These forces are much weaker, or do not exist at all, at many less prestigious colleges and universities. I speak from personal experience in this regard: the Brooklyn College administration attempted to displace scholarship, teaching, and service in evaluating my (ultimately successful) tenure application, basing its judgment instead on "uncollegiality," which college documents defined in writing as disagreeing with the personnel and curricular preferences of some senior colleagues.

This lack of intellectual diversity provides one key explanation for the elimination or redefinition of fields -- such as, in my own discipline, political, diplomatic, and constitutional history -- on the grounds not of curricular need but that such topics are "old-fashioned" or "conservative."

How to tackle this problem, however, remains an item of debate. As Inside Higher Ed's "Around the Web" column reported last week, the American Association of University Professors has set up a Web page denouncing government initiatives that guard against the imposition of ideological litmus tests in personnel matters. (The organization's move would have been more helpful had the AAUP offered proactive steps on how to address concerns like those raised by Simmons or Columbia president Lee Bollinger. ) Since leaving the problem to the same faculty bodies that created it is unlikely to produce a happy solution, administrators themselves must champion the cause of intellectual diversity, even at the risk of arousing controversy.

The coming months will reveal whether the reaction to Summers' remarks resulted more from institutional factors confined to Harvard than from issues of broader relevance to the academy. Those on the outside can only hope that this controversy does not spread any further beyond Harvard Yard.

Bio

KC Johnson, a professor of history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, is a visiting professor at Harvard University for the spring 2005 term.

 

 

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