It’s official; after a rancorous tenure, Harvard President Lawrence Summers resigned today. I share the concerns of Harvard’s Professor Alan Dershowitz (a member of FIRE’s Board of Editors for its series of Guides to Student Rights on Campus) who wrote in the Times Online about the most notorious controversy surrounding Larry Summers. As many will remember, much of the current kerfuffle began when Summers gave a controversial speech indicating that there might be different levels of aptitude for science between men and women at the highest cognitive levels. Professor Dershowitz writes:
The problem is that if a university president were to be fired because he expressed the views put forward by Summers, it would become only a matter of time before professors, researchers and students would also be subjected to discipline for expressing similar views.
Once a point of view becomes an impermissible one on a university campus, nobody can express it without fear of recrimination. Dismissing a president on such grounds would give an imprimatur of legitimacy to censorship of the views that formed the basis for his dismissal.
That is why this issue is bigger than Summers or even Harvard University. It is really about a long-term, systematic effort to impose a political-correctness straitjacket on certain views, especially at universities.
It began with the enactment of speech codes, harassment policies and other disciplinary mechanisms designed to censor speech deemed offensive to some. The Summers presidency has stood in stark contrast to political correctness. He has refused to subscribe to the first commandment for university presidents: make only speeches that risk offending nobody.
I recognize that Summers’ unpopularity with Harvard’s faculty went beyond his decision to make a controversial point in a speech, but I dread the message his resignation sends in an atmosphere in which professors, students, and administrators are already often afraid to depart from designated political or ideological orthodoxies. After all, if the president of Harvard can’t make provocative comments, challenge assumptions, or engage in dissent, then who can?