Students Sift Through Summers’ Spiel

By May 2, 2005

In response to the controversy over Harvard University President Larry Summers’ comments on innate gender differences and on Native American history, a couple of students opined on freedom of speech on campus in The Harvard Crimson over the past weeks. Their articles are worth a read. In “The Death of Discourse,” freshman Ashish Agrawal writes:

When I received a copy of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Handbook last summer, I did what any diligent Harvard student would do: I read it. Or, to be fair, I skimmed it very carefully, and I found one important morsel. Having just finished a hellish senior year that involved a taxing battle between the student newspaper and the high school administration, I was glad to read that the Harvard faculty believed that “By accepting membership in the University, an individual joins a community ideally characterized by free expression, free inquiry, intellectual honesty, respect for the dignity of others, and openness to constructive change.” And for a large part of my experience here, this has been true. All of my classes have attempted (sometimes with more success than others) to challenge my opinions and my thought process. Nonetheless, as University President Lawrence H. Summers has recently learned, there are still many off-limits areas in our ideological discourse. American society has moved steadily towards an intolerable absolutist form of political correctness, and Harvard students and faculty are not immune from this trend. …Our society now evolves at an unprecedented rate, and it is simply pretentious to believe that anyone’s idea is automatically “right” without hearing the other side, regardless of how ridiculous that other side may seem. Virtually all ideas, including civil rights, gender equality, and sexual preference equality, were once the minority opinion. The solution is not to suppress an opinion, but rather to address it directly and on its merits. I still hold out hope that American society will be able to see both sides of any issue and make its own educated choice, rather than forcing out the opinion that doesn’t fit the current norm.

In another article, “Another Month, Another Flap,” senior Stephen W. Armstrong writes that Summers’ problem isn’t with what he says, but how he deals with public relations. Armstrong writes:

…[I]f the rest of Summers’ time at Harvard is spent responding to phantoms of insensitivity, his tenure will be frustratingly unproductive. And now that he has gained a reputation for tactlessness, people are even more likely to find him grating, whether he’s really being insensitive or not. So it is up to Summers to do something different.   The easiest thing to do would be for Summers to just keep his mouth shut, stay away from contentious issues, step on no toes. Harvard, though, deserves better than an intellectually limp president. Even many of his critics would agree.   Instead of saying less, Summers should say more. On the record, that is. Summers can avoid scandals like this from developing into national news by releasing more information earlier. With a new press officer in place, Summers has the opportunity to diffuse flaps like these and forge better press relations by compiling and releasing transcripts promptly, not, say, seven months after the fact (the president’s office only made a transcript of his remarks available to The Crimson this week—the conference convened last September). The best way to prove that you haven’t been insensitive is to put everything on the record quickly.

Schools: Harvard University