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.
As Commissioner Bud Selig and several prominent players attempted to evade subpoenas for recent House of Representatives hearings on baseball’s steroid problem, Rep. Henry Waxman observed, “What strikes me is that baseball doesn’t want to investigate it and they don’t want us to investigate it.” The California congressman summed up baseball’s policy as “don’t know, don’t tell.”
This “Selig Strategy” could also describe the academy’s response to indications that the nation’s humanities and social sciences departments suffer from a lack of intellectual and programmatic diversity. Calls for outside inquiries have been denounced as violations of academic freedom, while few if any signs exist that the very internal academic procedures that created the problem can successfully resolve it.
Instead of imitating baseball’s strategy of trying to cover up relevant information, the academy should bring transparency to the now-cloaked world of faculty hires and in-class instruction, compiling and publicizing the necessary data, probably through college and department Web sites. Such a response would allow the educational establishment to employ the habits of the academic world, namely reasoned analysis through use of hard evidence, to address (and, when false, disprove) specific allegations of ideological bias. At the same time, the exposure associated with greater transparency might deter those professors inclined to abuse their classroom authority for indoctrination.
Calls for any greater openness have encountered fierce resistance from some quarters of the faculty — as seen in many of the contests for the American Association of University Professors' governing council, for which balloting concludes on April 15. Four of the ten races (Districts 1, 3, 8, and 10) feature one candidate who defines academic freedom as chiefly a tool for protecting the professoriate’s dominant ideological faction -- to the point of resisting outside scrutiny and limiting publicly available information about academic matters. In a fifth race, for District 7, both candidates have endorsed this vision. This cohort has deemed transparency a negative force, and instead has outlined a vision of:
Imagined reality, in which leftists and far lefists -- despite myriad surveys suggesting their substantial overrepresentation on the nation’s campuses — represent a besieged minority in the academy. In 1999, for instance, District 8 candidate Ellen Schrecker doubted that if “America was to enter another Vietnam War,” junior faculty members would “express themselves as freely as we did in the 1960s.” Though the professoriate’s outspoken hostility to the Bush administration’s Iraq policy belied this prediction, the platform of District 7 nominee Jeffrey Halpern nonetheless continues to assert, "The exercise of free expression among tenured faculty is being radically curtailed in the name of national security." Radically curtailed?
Professorial privilege, in which faculty possess an apparently unlimited right to bring their political agendas into the classroom. After a 2001 job action by the California Faculty Association included calls for professors to insert pro-union statements into their course syllabi, District 1 candidate Susan Meisenhelder scoffed that administrators who protested the policy overlooked how “important university traditions such as academic freedom” allowed professors to infuse their courses with political material. In this vision of the academy, undergraduates, like administrators, cannot even publicize their dissent. In early 2005, Schrecker charged that students who criticized the imtimidating behavior of anti-Israel professors of Middle Eastern studies at Columbia University wanted “to impose orthodoxy at this university, often in the name of academic diversity.” Better, evidently, for universities to cover up classroom misconduct, especially if the professors in question are expressing the preferred viewpoint on contemporary foreign policy issues.
Freedom from oversight, in which faculty members are responsible to no one and the goal of professional organizations is to conceal information that faculty ideologues find inconvenient. District 3 candidate Roxanne Gudeman promises to contest "unacceptable intrusions” that seek “to monitor and censor the political, ideological, and ethnic backgrounds of members of the academy and their teaching and research.” (Gudeman also champions ethnic and racial diversity programs, which, if nothing else, monitor the “ethnic backgrounds of members of the academy.”) District 10 candidate Michael Bérubé has committed himself to fighting "concerted and well-organized attacks on the professoriate,” including calls for an advisory board for Title VI area studies programs -- as if professors, alone among recipients of federal appropriations, are entitled to receive public moneys without legislative oversight.
The polar extreme of these viewpoints, of course, is David Horowitz’s Academic Bill of Rights (ABOR), which the AAUP has formally condemned as a political intrusion into the academy. The “Selig Strategy,” however, represents a remarkably ineffective response to the ABOR movement. Public support for ABOR derives from a perception that most professors have little interest in restoring intellectual diversity to the academy. In light of scandals at such prestigious institutions as Columbia and Colorado, faculty organizations issuing blanket assertions that all is well in their ranks and dismissing outside criticism as illegitimate only reinforces the impression that the professoriate has something to hide regarding the ideological tenor of classroom instruction.
There are, of course, occasions — the McCarthy Era was one, the early stages of the Vietnam War, perhaps, another — that justify aggressively utilizing the principle of academic freedom to prevent inappropriate outside scrutiny. But higher education, like baseball, is an institution whose survival depends on public support. Just as Mark McGwire sacrificed the public’s trust when he told congressmen that he would not “talk about the past,” so too will higher education’s public standing be diminished by continued claims that academic freedom allows the professoriate to ignore allegations of ideological bias. Even institutions not reliant on taxpayer support cannot long flourish in an atmopshere of widespread public distrust of the academy’s values.
Fortunately, a middle ground exists between the “Selig Strategy” on the one hand and having state legislatures dictate classroom content on the other. Transparency — not a claim that academic freedom prevents public scrutiny — represents the most effective way to respond to criticism of bias among the professoriate. “Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” noted Alan Charles Kors and Harvey Silverglate in Shadow University, applying Justice Louis Brandeis’ famous dictum to the problems of higher education. The Internet provides an unparalleled opportunity to demonstrate the inner workings of the academy to legislators, trustees, alumni, and taxpayers. If professors have nothing to hide, they have nothing to fear from drawing back the curtains regarding personnel and curricular actions.
To my knowledge, no university requires departments to publicly explain how and why they have allocated new lines. Imagine if every other year, every college department published on its Web site a statement about shifts in lines. For example, a religion department that had replaced one of four slots studying Christianity with one focusing on Islam might explain that it did so because of increased scholarly and student interest, post-9/11, or because the field had produced important new scholarship on Islam-related themes.
My own discipline, for example, has witnessed a sharp decline in positions in political, diplomatic, constitutional, and legal history over the past generation. Perhaps intellectually compelling reasons exist for dramatically shifting staffing toward adherents of the trinity of race, class, and gender. Yet absent any public justification, it’s hard to think of a reason other than ideological bias why, say, the University of Michigan’s History Department, whose ranks already included five U.S. women’s historians, used new lines to hire three more specialists in women, gender, and sexuality — all while the department lacks even one historian currently working in U.S. foreign policy.
Even more discouraging, despite the credible allegations of in-class bias by professors, I know of no university that requires faculty members to publicly post their course descriptions, syllabi, assignments, and lecture notes. The latter requirement, admittedly, would mean more work for professors, in that notes would need regular updating, but it also would provide concrete evidence that faculty members are always revising their in-class presentations to reflect new scholarship in their fields, while seeking to teach the subject matter at hand rather than attempting to shape their students’ viewpoints on controversial contemporary issues.
Of course, this strategy also would expose improper conduct to the light of day — as when Professor Joseph Massad, of Columbia’s Middle Eastern studies department, informed one class that “Israelis introduced plane hijackings” to the Middle East and that Zionist leader Theodor Herzl allied with “anti-Semites” to “help kick Euro[pean] Jews out.” Faculty members committed to the indoctrination approach could theoretically post neutral lecture notes while maintaining wholly biased classroom presentations. But such a strategy would constitute outright deception on the part of the professor, behavior that few administrations would be likely to tolerate.
In their platform, Schrecker (who has darkly hinted of an Internet-related “virtual McCarthyism”) and her cohort oppose any movement toward greater transparency. Might they fear that sunlight would confirm some or all of the outside critique of ideological bias? More ominously, do they speak for a majority in the academy?
“The thought police,” Harvard professor Stephan Thernstrom recently observed, are now “not just outside, on some congressional or state legislative committee. They are inside too, in our midst.” The educational establishment can imitate baseball’s 1990s strategy and ignore the problem, hoping that no one notices the ever more powerful internal threat to academic freedom. But, as Bud Selig and Mark McGwire have just discovered, the “don’t know, don’t tell” approach entails substantial risks. In this situation, transparency, not utilizing “academic freedom” to shield professors from outside scrutiny, represents the best course for the academy to adopt.
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.