What colleges can learn from the brouhaha at Harvard
Addressing some 500 faculty members gathered in Harvard's Lowell Hall last week, Lawrence Summers, the university's outspoken 27th president, displayed uncharacteristic humility: "I am committed to opening a new chapter in my work with you," vowed the former treasury secretary and World Bank lead economist, looking more than a little chastened after five weeks of controversy brought on by comments he had made about the paucity of women at the highest levels of science and engineering.
Delivered at an economics conference in mid-January and eventually leaked to the press, those off-the-record remarks sparked what quickly grew into an international debate about the causes and consequences of gender differences--in no small part because Summers's stress on "intrinsic aptitude" seemed to put him on the politically explosive nature side of the nature-nurture debate. Closer to home, his comments--and perhaps his initial refusal to release a full transcript of them--brought to a head resentments that many in the Harvard arts and sciences faculty had come to feel toward their sharp-elbowed leader during his contentious 3 1(/2)-year reign. Nor were those faculty members willing to forgive quickly, even after Summers repeatedly apologized for having addressed potentially hurtful views in too careless a manner. After all, his determined critics were quick to point out, this was the man whose allegedly disrespectful remarks had driven away popular African-American studies Prof. Cornel West. His questioning of Harvard's anti-ROTC stance and forthright criticism of the divestment-from-Israel movement were further bones of contention. And wasn't it also the case that under his presidency the number of women receiving tenured positions had notably declined, down to only four out of 32 last year? To disgruntled faculty, the president's ill-considered remarks at the economics forum went hand in hand with policies, attitudes, and an overall leadership style--high-handed, abrasive, and authoritarian--that was ill-suited to the collegial life of an academic institution.
Not surprisingly, conservatives on the faculty and in the wider world--and a good number of liberal observers as well--saw things quite differently. In their view, the real cause of anger among the predominantly leftish professoriate was Summers's willingness to talk about ideas and research that challenged left-liberal shibboleths. Hadn't Summers's earlier effrontery in raising questions about affirmative action in a meeting with African-American scholars set off similar liberal alarums? And didn't he also raise the hackles of the tenured radicals by talking about grade inflation and an undergraduate curriculum filled with too many narrow-gauged courses reflecting the instructors' special interests rather than providing broader coverage of a field? "He is academically a conservative, though politically a liberal," says government Prof. Harvey Mansfield, who wears his own conservative convictions proudly. "The academic liberals here can't stand him. They have been looking for a way to get him. And now they have found one."
Beyond gender. Still others see something far more than mere ideology behind the tempest. "It is clear that something bigger than the gender question erupted," says psychology Prof. Mahzarin Banaji, who describes herself as "both critical of the content of what Larry said and supportive of him and his continuation."