Let the Inmates Run the Academic Asylum

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by Paul Gottfried by Paul Gottfried

Last month I noticed the furor that the neoconservative establishment was whipping up in support of Lawrence M. Summers, who was about to step down as Harvard University President. Throughout February my email was full of portentous warnings from movement conservative friends and neoconservative foundations about the likely fate of Harvard after Summers’s departure. The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page story on February 22 about Summers’s misfortune, quoting his close friend Allan Dershowitz about the dangerous Harvard "die-hard Left," which had apparently pushed Summers out of his job.

It all started last year, when the now departing president, speaking at a conference of economists (or, according to the Wall Street Journal, "a conference on work force diversity"), noted in passing that biological differences might account for the fact that women achieve less success at the top levels in science and mathematics than men. When called on the carpet by the faculty of Arts and Sciences, which subsequently issued a no-confidence vote in his leadership, Summers first denied that he had said what he probably did, and then took 50 million dollars from the university’s funds, to invest in a program for enhancing female success in math and science. For the next several months, the by then wounded executive issued periodic apologies, but to no avail. His standing among the indignant humanities professors did not spring back, and this month when faced by the likelihood of a second no-confidence vote from the same body, he took the easy way out and resigned.

This was the easy way out because if Summers had not resigned, he could have toughed it out, by rallying supporters in the professional schools and elsewhere at Harvard outside of the radicalized faculty of Arts and Sciences. But Summers took the less difficult path, knowing full well that he can spend the remainder of his life drawing on a fat pension, as a former Secretary of the Treasury under Clinton, and the largess that neocon foundations will likely fork over to him. While in office, Summers had done things that deserve praise; e.g., insisting that faculty members teach their full load of courses (which is about half as large as mine) and devote their instruction time to the appropriate subject matter instead of anti-war harangues. He had criticized the perpetual laziness and grandstanding of black multicultural philosophy professor Cornell West, whose recent scholarship consists mostly of hip-hop recordings. He had also been hard on pro-Arab demonstrators, who tried to shout down pro-Israeli speakers, and he had condemned as "possibly anti-Semitic" a call by some professors to disinvest in Israeli-owned stocks. This may have been the chief reason that the neocon press rallied to Summers, a Jewish liberal who deplored the excesses of pro-Palestinian demonstrators. The ever-predictable New York Post, which last month could barely contain its joy over the imprisonment of the Holocaust-denying historian David Irving in Austria, celebrated Summers as a champion of academic freedom. Within the Post’s narrowly restricted neoconservative vision, Summers was exactly what the paper claimed he was.

What is harder to figure out is why anyone on the right should care about who wins this fight. Its contestants are certified leftists, who would fight furiously to keep our side from ever working at a first-rate university. If forced to take sides, I would back the more extreme or more obvious multicultural Left, which is bound to arouse a popular reaction sooner or later. The real danger for those who wish to discredit the Left is to have a "reasonable" version of the enemy in power. My guess is that Summers, who has been a conventional liberal Democrat until now, stepped down, because he was genuinely grieved to lose the esteem of his lifetime social circle, after he had uttered a socio-biological commonplace. As Secretary of the Treasury, he made a name for himself as someone who had gone after the users of corporate tax shelters, which is not exactly the kind of practice that would normally endear Summers to the Journal. As Harvard president, he was putting his fellow-leftists on notice to clean up their act and to stop tolerating verbal attacks on pro-Israeli students and highly selective wars against Israeli corporations. Such behavior, he understood, could cost his own side popular and journalistic support. But my position is exactly the opposite of Summers’s: I say let the inmates run the asylum, so that sane people will begin to notice.

March 13, 2006

Paul Gottfried [send him mail] is Horace Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College and author of Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt and The Strange Death of Marxism.

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