Academic, Heal Thyself: What Went Wrong At Harvard?

April 2006

Tomorrow, Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences will meet for the first time since the resignation of the university's president, Lawrence H. Summers, two weeks ago. The dean of Arts and Sciences, William Kirby, resigned in late January, reportedly after clashing with Mr. Summers. When Mr. Summers leaves on July 1, there will be a serious leadership vacuum at Harvard, which has been torn by strife during his short five-year tenure.

Larry Summers, a former Treasury secretary, assumed the presidency with a high sense of mission. Determined to effect change, he took bold and confrontational positions. He endorsed proposals to expand the campus across the Charles River to Allston, attacked anti-Semitism and rampant grade inflation and laudably argued for the return of R.O.T.C. to Harvard.

But whatever his good intentions, Mr. Summers often inspired more heat than light. His stellar early career as an economics professor did not prepare him for dealing with an ingrown humanities faculty that has been sunk in political correctness for decades. As president, he had a duty to research the tribal creeds and customs of those he wished to convert. Foolishly thinking plain speech and common sense would suffice, he flunked Academic Anthropology 101.

While many issues are rumored to have played a role in Mr. Summers's resignation (including charges of favoritism in a messy legal case involving foreign investments), the controversy that will inevitably symbolize his presidency was the manufactured outcry early last year over his glancing reference at a conference to possible innate differences between the sexes in aptitude for science and math. The feminist pressure groups rose en masse from their lavishly feathered nests and set up a furious cackle that led to a 218-to-185 vote of no confidence by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences last March.

Instead of welcoming this golden opportunity to introduce the forbidden subject of biology to academic gender an studies (where a rigid dogma of social constructionism reigns), Mr. Summers collapsed like a rag doll. A few months later, after issuing one abject apology after another, he threw $50 million at a jerrybuilt program to expand the comfort zone of female scientists and others on campus. That one desperate act of profligate appeasement tells volumes about the climate of persecution and extortion around gender issues at too many American universities.

In a widely reported incident four years ago, Mr. Summers's private conversation with Cornel West, one of Harvard's short list of distinguished scholars who have the title of "university professor" (because they teach across department lines), resulted in Dr. West angrily decamping to Princeton. Whatever critique of affirmative action Mr. Summers intended was lost in what became a soap opera of hurt feelings and facile accusations of racism.

There was a larger issue of campus governance at stake. While it is certainly in Harvard's best interests to ensure that its university professors remain productive at a high scholarly level (the president reportedly slighted Dr. West's recording of a rap CD), it is unclear on what authority Mr. Summers was challenging Dr. West in the first place. The provost, not the president, is the chief academic officer of any university. But Harvard reinstituted a provost only in the early 1990's, and the weakness of that position is suggested by the provost's near invisibility through the public battles of the Summers regime.

The ideological groupthink of Harvard's humanities faculty does patent disservice to the undergraduates in their charge, but it is the faculty alone that should properly determine curriculum and academic policy, a responsibility that descends from the birth of European universities in the Middle Ages. Over the past 40 years, there has been a radical expansion of administrative bureaucracies on American college campuses that has distorted the budget and turned education toward consumerism, a checkbook alliance with parents who are being bled dry by grotesquely exorbitant tuitions. Mr. Summers's strategic blunders unfortunately took the spotlight off entrenched political correctness and changed the debate to academic power: who has it, and how should it be exercised? Nationwide, campus administrations faced with factionalized or obdurate faculties have in some cases taken matters into their own hands by creating programs or reducing and even eliminating departments. The trend is disturbingly away from faculty power.

Hence more is at stake in the Harvard affair than merely one overpriced campus with an exaggerated reputation. Support for Larry Summers was strong among Harvard undergraduates and outside the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which constitutes only one of Harvard's many colleges and professional schools. The Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz protested that Mr. Summers had been removed by "a coup d'├ętat." But by his failure to provide a systematic rationale for his words and actions, Mr. Summers gave the impression of governing by whim and impulse. The leader of so huge and complex an institution cannot be a whirling dervish.

IT now remains to be seen whether Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences is capable of self-critique. Will its members acknowledge their own insularity and excesses, or will they continue down the path of smug self-congratulation and vanity? Harvard's reputation for disinterested scholarship has been severely gored by the shadowy manipulations of the self-serving cabal who forced Mr. Summers's premature resignation. That so few of the ostensibly aggrieved faculty members deigned to speak on the record to The Crimson, the student newspaper, illustrates the cagey hypocrisy that permeates fashionable campus leftism, which worships diversity in all things except diversity of thought.

If Harvard cannot correct itself in this crisis, it will signal that academe cannot be trusted to reform itself from within. There is a rising tide of off-campus discontent with the monolithic orthodoxies of humanities departments. David Horowitz, a 1960's radical turned conservative, has researched the lopsided party registration of humanities professors (who tend to be Democrats like me) and proposed an "academic bill of rights" to guarantee fairness and political balance in the classroom. The conservative radio host Sean Hannity regularly broadcasts students' justifiable complaints about biased teachers and urges students to take recording devices to class to gather evidence.

These efforts to hold professors accountable are welcome and bracing, but the danger is that such tactics can be abused. Tenure owes its very existence to past intrusions by state legislatures in the curricular business of state universities. If politicians start to meddle in campus governance, academic freedom will be the victim. And when students become snitches, we are heading toward dictatorship by Mao's Red Guards or Hitler Youth.

Over the last three decades of trendy post structuralism and postmodernism, American humanities professors fell under the sway of a ruthless guild mentality. Corruption and cronyism became systemic, spread by the ostentatious conference circuit and the new humanities centers of the 1980's. Harvard did not begin that blight but became an extreme example of it. Amid the ruins of the Summers presidency, there is a tremendous opportunity for recovery and renewal of the humanities. Which way will Harvard go?