Harvard Makes Summers Face an Uncertain Spring

By March 29, 2005

If you thought (hoped? prayed?) that the Larry Summers controversy at Harvard University was over, consigned at last to the dustbin of pop history somewhere between the Ben and J-Lo romance and the Robert Blake murder trial, then you underestimated the geniuses on the school’s faculty of arts and sciences.

On March 15, two months after the controversy began, they approved a resolution declaring that the “faculty lacks confidence” in Summers, Harvard’s embattled president.

In other words, they’re not going to let this one go –which means, just maybe, that Summers will have to go instead.

In that case, the question for the rest of us is: What are we going to do about it? According to a recent study by the College Board, the average cost of a college education rose 6 percent last year to an all-time high of $20,082. At Harvard, the “cost of attendance” is $42,450 a year.

One can only wonder how high those costs can rise, and what faculty hijinks can be tolerated, before students and their parents start to wonder what they’re getting for their money.

Ultimate Effect

Summers’s fate is by no means sealed. While a majority of faculty may want him gone, he retains the support of the school’s governing board, several of whose members are friends dating back to his days as a professional economist and Bill Clinton’s Treasury secretary.

Summers himself reacted to the vote with yet another desperate act of self-abasement, releasing a statement filled with words like “dialogue” and “commitment” and “working together” that in translation mean “please, please, please let me keep my job.”

The poor president’s public appearances are beginning to resemble a hostage video, with the entire Women’s Studies department hovering behind him in ski masks.

After two months of commotion, it’s easy to forget how Summers’s troubles began.

Reduced to its essence, Summers’s offense was to dare suggest to a scholarly symposium that men and women, considered on average and in the aggregate, tend to pursue different interests and exhibit different strengths, and these tendencies might not be altogether traceable to cultural influences.


Anywhere else, such a statement would be acknowledged as a truism. But not in most modern universities.

Large numbers of faculty, particularly in the liberal arts and the soft sciences like sociology and anthropology, are engaged in a furious battle with all such common-sense notions — and are willing to police behavior not only through faculty resolutions but also through the courts.

“If Summers had said what he said in a classroom, you might very well see a sexual harassment claim flow from his comments,” says David French, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a Philadelphia-based group that monitors free-speech issues on campus.

Summers ended his symposium remarks by saying, “I will have served my purpose if I have provoked thought.” Famous last words. He had forgotten — for surely he must have known — that for many academic professionals, provocation is supposed to run only in one direction, toward their own rigidly enforced ideas.

Twenty years ago, this rigidity went by the un-ironic name “political correctness” and was exemplified by such crude measures as “speech codes,” instituted in dozens of schools.

End of PC?

By the mid-90s, however, political correctness had become the butt of satire and parody, and one speech code after another — at Stanford University, the University of Wisconsin, and elsewhere — was struck down.

As a consequence, many parents with college-age kids thought that speech codes and the ideology they enforced was on the wane.

Not so, says French.

“You don’t see the linguistic excesses of PC so much anymore,” he says, “like demands that the cafeteria’s Fisherman’s Platter be renamed the Fisherperson’s Platter.

“But in the power structure of the university, the PC mindset is absolutely entrenched and unquestioned. There’s a mainstream orthodoxy that is hostile to free speech and to academic freedom and inquiry.”

Not Too Diverse

It’s an odd condition for institutions that supposedly pride themselves on “diversity.” But in the modern academy this term, and the ideal, are narrowly defined.

Politically, university faculties are the least diverse public institutions in the U.S.

A large-scale survey conducted in spring 2003 of six national social science and humanities associations pinned down the numbers. Among anthropology faculty, Democrats outnumbered Republicans by 30 to 1; among sociology professors, the ratio was 28 to 1. Even among economists, the most diverse group, the ratio was still lopsided: 3 Democrats for every Republican.

While not surprising, the study should still be unnerving, especially since the Summers incident shows that even the unexceptional views of a mainstream Democrat like him will be deemed intolerable by today’s faculty.

And the mechanisms that maintain this ideological uniformity — tenure and hiring practices — offer little hope for change.

The authors of the survey (Daniel B. Klein of Santa Clara University and Charlotta Stern of Stockholm University, both self- described liberal Democrats) conclude blandly with the recommendation that, in light of the lack of ideological diversity in faculties, “we favor reducing involuntary payments from taxpayers to professors.”

Well, hear hear! But what about voluntary payments from parents to professors in the form of tuition and fees? When will parents dare to cast a “no confidence” vote of their own?