The Speech Larry Summers Should Have Given

By February 24, 2006

FIRE cofounder and board member Harvey Silverglate’s column yesterday in the Boston Phoenix relates the speech that Harvard President Larry Summers, who is stepping down this year in the wake of numerous ideological conflicts with faculty members, “should have given six months ago.” It’s a ringing defense of academic freedom and the right to speak out freely on controversial topics. Too bad Summers never gave it. An excerpt:
From the outset, my tenure as Harvard’s president has been punctuated by a series of phony crises. Some of these episodes were blamed on my lack of personal sensitivity, others on my misconception of a university president’s role vis-à-vis the faculty. This is deeply troubling to me, not because my social reputation is at stake, but because something larger hangs in the balance: whether or not academic freedom will remain intact. I take seriously the duty bestowed on me, and I welcome robust criticism; reciprocally, I reserve the right, indeed the duty, to voice my unvarnished views about the directions in which I feel Harvard must move.
 
 
To reaffirm—or perhaps to restore—essential academic freedom and the spirit of free inquiry on this campus, I will pursue the following initiatives vigorously. I am abolishing at every school within this university all disciplinary codes that limit free speech in the name of sensitivity. All codes outlawing “harassment” shall be interpreted so as to apply only to acts constituting harassment in the legal sense, not to speech that, if uttered on the city streets of Cambridge would be constitutionally protected. The university’s curriculum will feature critical thinking and knowledge attainment, not political indoctrination. All efforts to force students to accept the politically palatable notions of the day, including sensitivity training and censorship in the name of propriety, shall cease…. While I will not interfere with any faculty member’s freedom to teach, I will insist that Harvard students, during their four years here, receive something more than political indoctrination.
Hopefully someday Harvard—or of any of our nation’s most prestigious colleges and universities—will have a president who will feel that he or she can give this speech. Academia is long overdue for it.

Schools: Harvard University