In May, I gave a reading from my contribution toDefiant Daughters: 21 Women on Art, Activism, Animals, and The Sexual Politics of Meat, a book edited by Kara Davis and Wendy Lee. The text pays homage to Carol J. Adams’s foundational ecofeminist animal studies work The Sexual Politics of Meat, first published in 1990 and in print and much-discussed by scholars ever since. I read my entry at a local bookstore packed to the rafters with friends and strangers alike, all of whom hung on my every word. At the end of the reading, people hugged me. They bought the book and asked me to sign it. In my professional life, I have never given such a reading and, as a result, I have never experienced anything that felt quite as rewarding as what I experienced that evening.
On May 18, Adams posted on Facebook that in reader reviews for a literary criticism article, a scholar was told that her paper "relies too heavily on Carol Adams (a non-academic animal rights writer) for its theorization of animals, women, and oppression." Further, the unnamed writer is instructed to incorporate more scholarly animal studies sources, like the work of Derrida, for example.
I want to talk about what’s going on with the dismissal of Adams’s work in terms of what such dismissal says about women’s invention of new ways of knowing in the academy, and I want to do so because as an academic woman, the omission of Adams’s work from scholarly consideration raises very real and problematic gender-based issues with regard to how we within the academy police and are policed in terms of our scholarly production. I’m using Adams as my example, because she’s the one I know best, and I think that her case offers real historical parallels to the disappearance of women’s writing more broadly.
Adams holds a divinity degree from Yale University and has published dozens of books with both academic and popular presses; she publishes in scholarly journals and in mainstream media, and she speaks regularly on college campuses across the country. She is prolific, productive, philosophical and, yes, accessible. She is a public intellectual of the first order, an "independent scholar" of the finest magnitude, and she’s been doing work on animal studies, ecocriticism, women’s studies, and literary analysis (to name a few of her areas of intellectual interest) since the 1970s.
Some scholars in animal studies and ecocriticism have tried to address the way that the recognized "legitimate" scholarly discourse has essentially written certain foundational female theoreticians right out of existence, as male scholars, one after another, appear to tell us, as if for the first time, what these modes of inquiry mean. For example, in the first edition Ecocriticism: The New Critical Idiom, Greg Garrard failed to include Adams’s concept of the absent referent in his chapter on animals – an oversight he corrected in the book’s second edition in 2011, but only after Adams herself contacted him to ask why he omitted mention of her foundational concept and examined instead "second generation" animal studies literary critics – many of whom have been influenced by Adams’s work.
Greta Gaard takes up the omission of female writers like Adams in a 2010 article in Isle in which she advocates for a more feminist ecocriticism, one that addresses the ecocritical revisionism – by such writers as Garrard and Lawrence Buell – that has rendered a feminist perspective largely absent. She notes that omissions of foundational ecofeminist texts in "ecocritical scholarship are not merely a bibliographic matter of failing to cite feminist scholarship, but signify a more profound conceptual failure to grapple with the issues being raised by that scholarship as feminist, a failure made more egregious when the same ideas are later celebrated when presented via nonfeminist sources."
And in a 2012 essay in Critical Inquiry, Susan Fraiman tracks gender in animal studies, noting that "In 1975, Peter Singer galvanized the modern animal rights movement with Animal Liberation, a work that would be heralded as one of its founding texts. That same year, The Lesbian Reader included an article by Carol Adams entitled “The Sexual Politics of Meat,” inspiration for a book eventually published in 1990. Her scholarship contributed to a growing body of ecofeminist work, emergent in the early 1980s, on women, animals, and the environment."
Unlike Adams, who has written consistently over a period of nearly five decades on the subject of animals, Derrida, on the other hand, had only the slightest interest in animal studies, with a singular sustained commentary “L’Animal que donc je suis (a` suivre),” a lecture given in 1997 and published in 2002 as "The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)” in Critical Inquiry. Fraiman’s work is concerned with the revisionist history that places Derrida at the fore as the father of legitimate animal studies and erases from that discourse the voices of pioneering women – like Adams. What Derrida did was to remove the gendered component from the analysis, to take animal studies away from its at that point established linkages with women’s studies.
So my defense of Adams is not really new, but what’s troubling is that despite such attention to the importance of Adams’s work, she continues to be dismissed over and over again as "non-academic," and I don’t think that this omission is simply because she doesn’t work in the academy. It’s more about what she’s saying and the way that she says it; it’s more about her unruly feminism and her position that there are linkages with regard to various oppressions – between animals, women, and colonized peoples. It’s about our tendency to cast feminism in a series of "waves" (first, second, and maybe third), and then decide that if feminist thought occurred during a previous wave, it’s now obsolete. And it’s about her impatience with patriarchy and with patriarchal dictates that determine not only what constitutes oppression but also how and when it is or is not appropriate to discuss both oppression and patriarchy.
If this piece feels like it’s about praising Carol Adams, that’s because it is, but it’s also about the stakes more broadly. Earlier this year, Pat McCrory, governor of North Carolina, the state in which I live and the state in whose university system I work, commented in a radio interview with Bill Bennett about our system’s offering courses that provide "no chances of getting people jobs." He said, "If you want to take gender studies that's fine. Go to a private school, and take it, but I don't want to subsidize that if that's not going to get someone a job."
At my own university, as the result of an extensive program prioritization process, women’s studies has been recommended for discontinuation, marginalized, as it has been, out of relevant existence. I don’t know that this is necessarily a bad thing, as I’d like to see women’s studies incorporated into and given equal footing within the fields that such a moniker indicates: philosophy, anthropology, and English, but I’m also troubled by the fact that women’s voices, as always when they assert themselves in the service of women, fail to be heard, maintained, and championed.
I’m an academic, an English professor who has published a fair number of academic texts, articles in scholarly journals, books with scholarly presses. I’ve played the game as is appropriate, writing about things that I love only to have them read by very few people because I have chosen, again, as is appropriate, to place my writing in venues that would ensure tenure and promotion even as by and large I’ve relegated my words to inconsequence. I have presented papers at academic conferences numerous times over the years, but I have never had an audience as large or as interested as the one that I had in May, and I don’t know that I ever felt truly heard before then.
My work has shifted over the course of my career from a focus on postcolonial literature – particularly South African literature and, even more particularly, the novels of J.M. Coetzee – to postcolonial environmentalism, to animal studies, to cultural studies explorations of veganism in mainstream media. But in all of my scholarly endeavors as well as in my lived experience as an ethical vegan, Carol Adams’s work has proven foundational. Without Adams, I assert, there might not have been a real and sustained focus on animal studies with regard to literature; her work has found its way into pretty much everything I’ve ever written, so I was honored to be asked to contribute to Defiant Daughters, in order to speak about my lived academic and activist experience as someone who writes about and practices an animal advocacy informed by both philosophy and lived experience.
Adams sent me an e-mail after learning for the umpteenth time that she’s not scholarly enough and that Derrida invented the field of animal studies. She said "since the point of [The Sexual Politics of Meat] is its interstitial nature (I guess, not sure that is quite the adjective I want), I know it will always receive criticism. On the other hand, about once a day I get an e-mail or twitter post or Facebook message etc. that says 'your book changed my life.' So I prefer the interstitial!"
In terms of my own scholarship, I want to be influential, to hear that perhaps I’ve changed someone’s life or scholarly focus. But if I publish in the wrong place or if I publish about the wrong subject (or if I publish about the right subject but in the wrong way), then I will be locked out, or forgotten, or called not scholarly or serious enough to warrant consideration. And the more I consider the equation of what is scholarly and what is not, maybe the less such a designation matters and the more I’m inclined to want to publish with a press like Lantern, whose activist nature drives its mission. But regardless of what I do or don’t do, if those of us in the academy continue to perpetuate an elitism that limits or forgets women’s voices, we are doomed to be duped into believing that men’s narratives are the originary myths of our profession, our passion, and our scholarship. And it’s high time we stopped doing that.
Laura Wright is associate professor and department head of English at Western Carolina University.
As a group of women readies to open a sorority to Swarthmore for the first time in 80 years, some students are calling for a schoolwide referendum, arguing that a sorority violates the college's Quaker values and emphasis on learning.
In its just-issued report "Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation" the U.S. Department of Commerce writes that while women fill close to half of all jobs in the U.S. economy, they hold less than 25 percent of science, technology, engineering, and math jobs.
The gender gap in STEM jobs persists despite the fact that more women now graduate from college than men and the fact that women in STEM fields tend to have more equitable wages compared to those in non-STEM jobs. Women major and earn degrees in STEM fields, creating a female talent pool, but they tend to pursue careers in education and health care.
Some may say, "Well, so what? There are some jobs men like, and some jobs women like." Or they may even argue that there are some fields for which one sex has a greater aptitude than the other.
As to the "so what," the answer can be found in the report's title. As long as there is a gender gap in these fields, there will be an innovation gap. And in today's global economy, the countries that lead do so through fostering technological innovation. Creating an environment where women can reach their full potential in the STEM fields is possible and can have impressive results.
Bryn Mawr College is in the top 10 among all colleges and universities in terms of the percentage of female graduates pursuing doctorates in the STEM fields. Our students are six times more likely to graduate with a degree in chemistry than college students nationwide and nine times more likely to do so in math. In fact, Bryn Mawr is second in the nation in the percentage of female students receiving degrees in math, beating out such science-oriented universities as the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and has 18 times the national average of female students graduating in physics.
How do we do it? A large chunk of the credit has to go to the college’s founders, who from the beginning (when Bryn Mawr was the first institution to offer women the chance to earn a Ph.D.) offered women the chance to get an education that was the equal to the finest available to men of the era.
But our current success comes from more than just a history of access. Every year, students come to Bryn Mawr unsure of what they want to study, and many end up choosing STEM fields.
When we ask our STEM majors what it is about Bryn Mawr that encourages them to pursue these male-dominated fields we consistently hear two things – being exposed to role models among our faculty, alumnae, and their fellow students, and the positive effect of being in a classroom in which they aren't the lone woman.
Julia Ferraioli graduated from Bryn Mawr in 2007 with a degree in computer science. When she arrived she expected to major in archaeology and had even been steered away from some of the higher-level math courses at her high school. "Studying computer science at a women's college meant that I could concentrate on learning instead of being the representative of a gender," Julia told me via e-mail. "Gender became irrelevant instead of being something that defined me."
As a student, Julia got to know a Bryn Mawr computer science alumna who has worked at AOL and PayPal and is now a web development senior manager for Comcast. The alumna and Julia’s professors encouraged her to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration for Women in Computing, where she made the connection that led to a job at Microsoft after she graduated. Julia went on to earn a master's in computer science from the University of Rochester and was just featured as the "Geek of the Week" by the website GeekWire for her work as technical evangelist with DocuSign.
As a single-sex college, Bryn Mawr has, I believe, certain advantages in encouraging its students to succeed in fields that have been traditionally dominated by men. But all colleges and universities can learn from our practices and the best practices of others as they teach and mentor students, make hiring decisions and institute policy.
At Bryn Mawr we want to engage all types of students in STEM coursework and believe they all can succeed. Offering students a variety of entry points into the sciences allows those who arrive at college with advanced preparation to enroll in higher-level courses that immediately challenge them, while students who have had negative prior experiences in STEM coursework or poor preparation can take and enjoy courses at various points in the introductory level.
An institution can also use innovative pedagogy that teaches the applications of science to attract more students to STEM subjects. For example, in introductory courses in computer science at Bryn Mawr, students apply CS principles to create graphic design projects. Across the sciences, our lab exercises focus on problem-solving rather than the execution and replication of a series of instructions.
Finally, family-friendly policies encourage faculty to find balance between work and personal life, enabling faculty of both genders to pursue the path to tenure. Ultimately this means more women in the tenured faculty ranks in STEM fields. For example, in chemistry and math, 50 percent of Bryn Mawr’s tenured faculty are women.
Women have come a long way over the last 40 years in terms of educational attainment. Achievement in the STEM fields is one area where we can still do better. At this time, when progress in these fields is so important, it's an area where we must do better.
In early June, 33-year-old University of British Columbia graduate student Rumana Manzur was brutally attacked by her husband while visiting family in Bangladesh. He gouged out her eyes, permanently blinding her, and bit off most of her nose. This was done in front of their young daughter.
Stories like this can paralyze us, but they can also mobilize us to speak out. When the mainstream press covers this issue, they are, in effect, starting a public conversation. In responding to this coverage, we tell other parts of the story and create a larger conversation, advocating for unheard voices and voices that are discounted in the "official" discussions at our institutions.
Three of our writers have added their stories to this conversation in the essays below. Afshan Jafar talks back to mainstream media depictions of violence against women, particularly women in "non-Western" countries. Melonie Fullick asks us to think about the ethical obligations involved in internationalizing our institutions and the enduring need for feminism. Lee Skallerup Bessette writes that while she can only speak for herself, she is, nonetheless, obligated to speak on behalf of others.
Death by Culture?*
By Afshan Jafar
Rumana Manzur’s case is heart-wrenching, and terrifying. It makes this post a very difficult one to write. I believe that all forms of violence against women are reprehensible and criminal and should be exposed and punished. But when I see the media coverage of Manzur’s case and its reception by the readers/viewers, I am reminded of why the coverage of violence against women in Other, "non-Western" countries needs to be approached differently.
As a "third-world feminist" living and teaching in the U.S., I am constantly navigating various identities simultaneously in and out of the classroom. Every time I cover this topic in my courses, I am torn. Am I simply perpetuating the myth of other cultures as inherently violent, sexist, and backward? Or did I accomplish what I set out to accomplish? That is, instead of approaching these incidents as something "barbaric," I encourage my students to analyze them as practices that are embedded in particular economic, political, cultural and global contexts. I am haunted by the thought that instead, some of my students may still come away thinking that life in other parts of the world is simply savage and brutal. It doesn’t help to read commentsposted by readers of news stories such as those about Manzur. References to a barbaric or backward religion, or culture, the Middle East, “honor killings,” and the Stone Age are some of the first ones to show up. There seems to be no separation in so many people’s minds between the Middle East, South Asia, Islam, or the Arab world. One category easily replaces the other, which only speaks to how foreign and far removed from "our" reality these incidents seem.
This exoticization of violence goes hand-in-hand with various media putting a disproportionate amount of emphasis on the "extreme" cases of violence against women in other cultures. This has some profound and damaging consequences. First, we hear of the honor killings, stoning, etc., but not of the many other forms of abuse and violence — trafficking, bonded labor, rape, domestic violence — even though they impact larger numbers of women. Second, it makes it much easier for people to latch on to a horrific incident such as Manzur’s, which happened in a "third-world country" and breathe a sigh of relief that this didn’t happen here -- and come away thinking that only those "barbaric" people over there do such things.
Uma Narayan, in DislocatingCultures, describes the common explanations of violence suffered by women in the non-Western world as a "death by culture," where culture becomes an explanation that needs no further examination by the reader/audience, while at the same time it doesn't actually tell the reader/audience anything specific. But it is always only women in Other cultures that suffer a "death by culture," and we don't employ that kind of reasoning to violence that we see in the Western world. The fact is, domestic abuse and violence against women and girls is a serious issue in Western countries as well, but these issues rarely receive the attention they deserve. People are fascinated with the story of Manzur in the same way that they are sickened by a story of an 11-yearoldgirlbeinggangrapedbyseveralmen. How could somebody do that?, we ask.
But though we don’t see the second case of the Texas girl as an example of American culture as barbaric (and thus we come up with no answer to our question), we do come to this conclusion in Manzur’s case (and answer our question with vague notions of tradition, custom, or culture). The popularity of “death by culture” type of explanations of violence (and by extension what these imply about the unenlightened state of these cultures) is part of the reason why Manzur's incident has translated into a call to bring more South Asian women for an education to Canada. While giving more women an opportunity to be highly educated is certainly something that should be pursued as a worthy goal in and of itself, this line of thought implies that education will work to "enlighten" these cultures and somehow prevent domestic abuse from happening in the future.
This post is not meant to imply that women's oppression is the same everywhere. There are various degrees of oppression, and some practices are more horrific than others; some cause more suffering than others. Nor is it meant to imply that coverage of violence against women is a bad thing. Quite the contrary. I am happy to see the support that Manzur's case has generated in Vancouver. But sometimes artificial dissimilarities blind us to the underlying and significant similarities between practices around the world. Is it really any less barbaric when a woman is shot or stabbed rather than blinded or whipped?
When I see pictures and videos of Manzur, it brings me to tears. I wish we could all see in her face the anguish and despair of the millions of women across the globe, including in our own countries, who are victims of systemic forms of violence and abuse. Perhaps, then, more stories would inspire action than a mere "Tsk, tsk. How cruel."
*I have taken this phrase from Uma Narayan’s chapter"Cross-cultural connections, Border-Crossings, and "Death by Culture": Thinking about Dowry Murders in India and Domestic Violence in the United States” from her book Dislocating Cultures.
Originally from Pakistan, Afshan Jafar is an assistant professor of sociology at Connecticut College. Her recent book, Women's NGOs in Pakistan, uncovers the overwhelming challenges facing women’s NGOs.
Untold Stories of Internationalization
By Melonie Fullick (Canada)
When UBC Fulbright scholar Rumana Manzur travelled to Bangladesh to see her family in May 2011, her husband refused her permission to return to Canada to complete her master's degree. He accused her of cheating; when she argued back, heattackedherviciously, gouging out her eyes in front of their young child — a daughter who will now bear her own emotional scars for a lifetime.
This shocking assault on a promising female student highlights an aspect of the internationalization of universities that is rarely trumpeted in policy discussions and news coverage of higher education.
"Internationalization" is not simply a neutral exchange of ideas and people, a seamless movement of "excellent" ideas and scholars from one nation to another. And the less examined, negative and contradictory side of internationalization seems to flare up in conflicts that we don't know how to resolve, conflicts of "culture" that inevitably affect lives and raise serious ethical concerns.
A recent example is that of Australia, where Indian students have suffered raciallymotivatedattacks and consequently the number of Indian applications to Australian universities has dropped. This has a direct effect on the economic sphere, since Australia can no longer expect to generate revenue from Indian enrollments. Canadian universities are nowcourtingstudentsinIndia with an eye to stealing Australia’s dwindling share of the market.
Offshoring higher education creates a different set of ethical dilemmas. Issues of socioeconomic class, gender, politics, and sexuality arise when we look at New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus. Recruited from only the most elite high schools worldwide, students from privileged circumstances receive better aid packages than regular NYU students, but they are not allowed political protest, or to engage in “homosexual acts” on campus. In a country where activists can be arrested for criticizing the government, what are the implications for this elitistoutpost? What kind of "world citizens" will be educated there?
These examples highlight problems with the predominant idea of university education, one still based on a Western, liberal model where the university is an "island" of tolerance and reason, a bastion of democratic values. What happens when the walls are breached by racism, sexism, and homophobia; when the island must stay afloat amid authoritarian politics?
There is no reason behind the violence inflicted on Rumana Manzur, and such actions can't be tolerated.
And though gendered violence is more prevalent in countries where women's rights are restricted, it’s not merely a “foreign” phenomenon. The attack also reminds us in a very discomforting way of the violence againstwomenthatpersistsinthiscountry (Canada), particularly for indigenous women. This is abuse that happens in "our own backyard" and even in our homes, much of it still unreported.
Recently in a lecture for a class on gender and society, I heard several young women voice the opinion that feminism is no longer necessary. I’d argue that it’s still necessary everywhere and that Rumana Manzur’s case provides another grievous example of why that’s the case. Perhaps this is one of the less pleasant — though most vital — lessons we can learn from internationalization.
Melonie Fullick is a Ph.D. student at York University, in Toronto, Ontario in Canada who writes about postsecondary education, policy, and governance. She can be found at speculative-diction.blogspot.com.
I can only speak for myself
By Lee Skallerup Bessette (U.S.)
Why do so many of us fail at being good women? What are the consequences for failing to achieve the stereotypes of a given time, place, and culture?
I have recently started a new weekly feature on my blog for the summer: BadFemaleAcademic. In it, I try to confront the gender stereotypes that female academics face. The post that thus far has generated the most amount of traffic was my post about beingawife. I wondered on Twitter why that may be; the answer lies in the negative connotations associated with the word "wife," particularly in parts of academia and feminist circles. For many of my readers, to be wife is to be less than, subservient and submissive, possessed.
When I read about RumanaManzur, graduate student at UBC, I was struck by the many things we have in common: we are exactly the same age; we are both wives, mothers, and academics. She now lies in a hospital bed, on the other side of the world, permanently blinded, unable to ever see her daughter again. Her career may also be over, depending on the rehabilitation resources that are available to her. I sit at my kitchen table, in my house (which I co-own), trying to find the words to express what I am feeling right now.
I feel deeply saddened that a woman who is described as "happy, brilliant, studious, and devout" was tortured because she sought to better herself (and, one would imagine, her family’s economic situation) through education. My heart breaks for the young daughter who apparently witnessed the maiming, at the hands of her own father, Manzur’s husband. Her husband even tried to blame it on her, saying that she had been unfaithful. As if that justified blinding and disfiguring his wife, the woman who is the mother of his child, the person he supposedly loves. I feel impotent rage that this could, that this does still happen to women who are like me.
But she, obviously, isn’t like me; nor I, like her. I feel fortunate that I was able to choose my husband, that he respects me and my career, and that we are to a large extent equal partners in our relationship. We agreed when we were going to have children, how we are going to raise them, and that I should return to work. Our house and our car are in both of our names, but I also have assets that are exclusively mine. How can I, in my privileged position, write about what Manzur has endured?
In fact, how can I even write about the “oppression” or, more accurately, inequality that I face? There is a viral video going around, FirstWorld Problems. It is a funny rap done by an upper-middle-class white teen aged boy, exposing the ridiculousness of the complaints uttered by (one would imagine) his peers. There is, of course, a danger in calling these complaints "first world" as they can negate the very real inequalities that exist in the West, but I can’t help but think that my "complaints" are indeed, first world and from a place of privilege.
I have the freedom and the ability to blog and write about the inequalities that I experience in higher education. Indeed, we tend to hide behind the veil of privilege and class, behind the assumption that inequalities don’t, can’t exist in such enlightened spaces. We are made to feel guilt or shame because, really, we should feel fortunate, if not grateful, that we do not face the kind of oppression that Manzur and her daughter have just been subjected to.
We need to do more to allow women to speak out and speak up for themselves, encouraging education, equality, and real protections. Although I feel compelled to speak on her behalf, I refuse to try to speak for her.
I can only speak for myself.
Think global, act local. I will continue to work to expose the inequality here, with the aim of making everyone more sensitive to the equalities that exist everywhere. One thing that I can do today is write this post at University of Venus and share the issue with our readers at Inside Higher Ed and elsewhere. I can remember that when I write, I am but one voice in a larger family of women, many of whom cannot speak for themselves. But I can write, speak, teach, and fight. I have the privilege of refusing silence. So I will.
Lee Skallerup Bessette is originally from Canada and earned a Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of Alberta. She can be found at collegereadywriting.blogspot.com.
University of Venus is read by graduate students and college presidents, faculty and provosts, staff and administration. In reaching this broad readership, we feel an urgency to respond to issues, knowing that what we say matters and that it often informs decisions that are being made at the highest levels.
One thing that each of us can do right now is notice those who are not speaking and work to create spaces and situations where they will feel empowered to speak. If we don’t hear their stories, we can’t advocate for meaningful change.
Submitted by KC Johnson on February 25, 2005 - 4:00am
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.
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.