February 27, 2006


Summers's End: Too bad Harvard's president wouldn't take his own side in a quarrel. (Peter Berkowitz, 03/06/2006, Weekly Standard)

The significance of Lawrence Summers's resignation under fire as president of Harvard University has been widely misunderstood. Oozing sympathy for a beleaguered and aggrieved Harvard faculty, the Boston Globe editorial page argued that because he was "arrogant" and "brusque," in short a "bully," Summers was "losing the ability to be effective" and so it was "sensible," and in the interests of all, for him to step down. A sympathetic editorial in the Washington Post portrayed Summers as a martyr, a foe of "complacencies and prejudices" who was forced to fall on his sword by a "loud and unreasonable" minority. An angry Wall Street Journal editorial, which colorfully decried "a largely left-wing faculty that has about as much intellectual diversity as the Pyongyang parliament," portrayed Summers as a victim whose apology, "in the wake of his 'gender' comments," failed "to placate his liberal critics."

Summers's ouster certainly demonstrates--as Harvard professor Ruth Wisse observed in a Wall Street Journal op-ed and as another Harvard dissenter, Alan Dershowitz, argued in the Boston Globe--the power at Harvard of a faction within the faculty of arts and sciences for whom scholarship is politics by other means and who aggressively practice the politics of resentment that they loudly preach. Yet they could not on their own have brought down Summers, whose intellectual credentials as a brilliant economist and whose political credentials as former secretary of the treasury in the Clinton administration are impeccable.

Summers's vociferous faculty critics--those who voted no confidence in him last year represent only about 25 percent of the arts and sciences faculty--needed, in the face of their scurrilous attacks, the silence of the vast majority of the rest of the Harvard arts and science faculty as well as the silence of the eight other faculties at Harvard. [...]

Alas, the Harvard establishment already seems to be drawing the wrong lesson from Summers's resignation. Summers critic Peter T. Ellison, a professor of anthropology and former dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, told the New York Times: "I think the repair will be virtually instantaneous. I think the problem has been essentially President Summers himself."

In fact, the problem was that Summers was untrue to his sound instincts about the university's mission and unable or unwilling to articulate the principles that should organize and refine those instincts. Despite his considerable gifts, the bright promise when he was appointed in 2001, his evident joy in Harvard's remarkable students and his varied achievements during his five years at the helm, Summers's failure to stand up for himself and for the principle of free inquiry when both were under assault--indeed, his collaboration by means of public acts of abasement and contrition before those who would cut off speech and research in order to protect their own tender sensibilities and political agendas--leaves Harvard more enfeebled and more confused about its mission than when he arrived.

On the bright side, it's even more of a laughingstock than it was outside of Harvard Yard.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 27, 2006 8:19 PM

The European intellectuals won't fight for their own civilization against a group of fanatical extremists, as long as their own lifestyles aren't threatened in the near term -- why would anyone expect the bulk of Harvard's intellectuals to go to the mat for Summers against their in-house group of exteremists if their own positions at the university aren't in danger?

Posted by: John` at February 27, 2006 11:16 PM

What about a pool to pick the next prez of Harvard. I pick Cornell West.

Posted by: erp at February 28, 2006 2:16 PM