by Steven Yates
Academe at the start of the 21st century is often the stuff Saturday Night Live skits are made of. Moreover, the more prestigious the university, the higher the comedy.
A spat broke out late last year at Harvard University between the school's new president, former Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers, and the school's Affirma – I mean, Afro-American Studies Department, over the antics of one of the latter's star members, Professor Cornel West.
Professor West, an academic celebrity who writes book-length screeds on how terrible blacks are treated in this racist society and earns six-figures annually, recently made a new and notable contribution to Western scholarship (are you sitting down?): a hip-hop CD. West has also gone to work on an exploratory presidential campaign (now I hope you're really sitting down) for Al Sharpton – excuse me, the Rev. Al Sharpton.
Summers had called West onto the carpet during a meeting between the two of them last October. He stated in so many words that West's, uh, extracurricular activities, were embarrassing to someone of his stature as a Harvard professor. Summers also criticized grade inflation in West's classes, especially his "Intro to Afro-American Studies" class. Of course, it is far easier just to give student A's than actually read their essays – assuming, of course, that Harvard students are still required to write essays. (By Harvard's own admission, almost half of all grades issued there are A's.) Summers recommended, again in so many words, that West should write serious books instead of radical leftist screeds about race.
The upshot was that West should attend to the responsibilities appropriate to someone with a professorship at Harvard.
Gasp! The very idea that a minority professor at one of the country's great A.A. Studies departments should actually have to return occasionally from the Mt. Olympus of academic / political celebrityhood and deliver in the classroom. Or be a serious scholar.
Professor West, like most academic radicals of whatever stripe faced with this kind of situation (minorities, feminists, homosexuals, etc.), was livid. For this crowd, criticism is often literally a new experience, and they don't handle it very well. Instead of cleaning up his act, West sought legal representation. He found it in Harvard's equally radical law professor, Charles J. Ogletree (who is also involved with a possible reparations lawsuit). "It is a matter of respect," Professor West said in a National Public Radio interview this past week. It has never occurred to him that respect is supposed to be earned, not given away because of one's minority status.
But with the legal fireworks having begun, in December Jesse Jackson – excuse me again, the Rev. Jesse Jackson – got involved. He showed up in Cambridge amidst the usual brigade of TV cameras and reporters to demand a meeting with Summers. His aim: to extract from Summers a confessional indicating sincere membership in the academic church of diversity – a statement of "clarity and commitment," Jackson called it, to affirmative action at Harvard. Jackson invoked the standard cliché on behalf of West's antics: "academic freedom." The Rev. Al Sharpton also got in his two cents worth, threatening Summers with a lawsuit for having instructed Professor West to cease working on his behalf. As columnist Armstrong Williams recently observed, apparently it hadn't occurred to Sharpton that Professor West has a full time job at Harvard. On the other hand, this may be indicative of how full-time positions held by academic celebrities are viewed from outside. Perhaps Sharpton inadvertently served up his first genuine insight ever!
Be this as it may, Professor West abruptly went on leave, apparently for an unrelated medical problem. He demanded an apology from Summers and threatened to go to Princeton University next fall. He held a position there before, jumping to Harvard in 1993. The A.A. Studies Department's other vocal members, literary "superstar" Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Philosophy Dept. crossover Anthony Appiah, have threatened to go with him.
These threats are interesting in their own right. If you are a celebrity minority academic, there is a very good chance that you can go where you please. Professor Gates's academic wanderings (which include Cornell and Duke prior to his ending up at Harvard) are the stuff of legend. Universities covet blacks for affirmative action purposes, and opportunists play this for what it is worth. It probably doesn't hurt the salaries of these put-upon and discriminated-against folks any, either.
Now pause with me for just a moment. Imagine a white male professor with conservative leanings – if there are any left – involving himself with, say, Patrick J. Buchanan's presidential organization two years ago. I well imagine every radical leftist within miles would have screamed for his head on a pole. His "academic freedom" wouldn't have meant a thing.
Unfortunately, there has been nobody on the scene to point this out. (In Cambridge, Massachusetts, some will say. You gotta be kidding!) True to form for university presidents today, Summers caved in, displaying the abject cowardice that whites given authority always display in the face of racial shakedowns. He gave Professor West the apology the celebrity-professor had demanded. He also apologized to the other celebrities of the A.A. Studies Dept., Professors Gates, Appiah and sociologist William Julius Wilson. Summers recommitted his life to the diversity faith, as Jackson and Sharpton had demanded. His confessional praised "Harvard's longstanding commitment to diversity" and promised "an ever more open and inclusive environment." He pleaded publicly with Professor West and the rest to "stay at Harvard."
In caving in, President Summers degraded himself. Was there once a time when faculty members who made in-your-face demands of presidents of private universities were simply told not to slam the door to your former office on your way out? I don't know; I can't remember that far back. Perhaps that was before the affirmative action power grab turned even prestigious universities into political battlegrounds and transformed pseudo-intellectual lightweights into "superstars."
This episode also degrades Harvard, a once great institution that at one time deserved its reputation and did not simply hand out 50 percent A's to its diverse student body. These people – Professors Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Anthony Appiah, etc. – are the academic equivalent of spoiled brats. Spoiled brats can get hired at Harvard and be paid salaries well above those of far more serious scholars and professors at institutions of lesser stature. And then, as if to prove to the world how juvenile they really are, one of the brats goes off and makes a hip-hop CD and works for a political campaign that ought to make his colleagues redden with embarrassment. But instead, the other brats rush to his defense. When he gets his knuckles lightly rapped, they all threaten to pick up their toys and leave.
Summers' having bowed down before the secular god of diversity still may not be enough. Princeton has expressed tentative interest. The New Jersey Ivy's president referred to Professor West as "eminent." Well, surprise, surprise! Summers' mindset, after all, is not that different from that of any other cowed and frightened university figurehead. No doubt there are other Ivy presidents who would salivate at the thought of hiring the "dream team" (Gates' less-than-original term) of Professors West, Gates, Appiah, etc. This is because regarding university presidents, as another cliché goes, "When you've seen one, you've seen u2018em all." A prospective university president must take a loyalty oath regarding diversity before he can even be considered for the job. Anyone who doesn't believe this need only consult any recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education and look at the job descriptions for university presidents, where you will find the mandatory "support for diversity" or the even more obvious "support for affirmative action." Had Summers not taken the oath to the satisfaction of the hiring committee, he would never have become President of Harvard University. What he apparently didn't realize is that his oath included refraining from criticizing anything one of the spoiled brats in his charge said or did, or suggesting that the person's primary focus ought to be on his students – or barring that, on real scholarship.
Summers had observed Professor West's antics and recognized, perhaps instinctively, that something was wrong. But in the complete moral and intellectual vacuum that characterizes higher education culture today, he had no hope. Guys like him, it should be clear, are part of this vacuum, and a product of it. The moral and intellectual foundation needed to give a person the fortitude to stand against allegations of racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, lookism, etc., ad nauseam, that have turned many campuses into Stalinist re-education camps no longer exists in any major university I am aware of. It is going to have to come from outside today's pathetic academic mainstream. A white guy who has not sworn the required oath to the church of diversity will not be allowed to advance beyond library clerk. Assuming he can get hired for that.
This means the brats can do as they please, go where they please, and continue to be brats, at least for now. All the while whining about how horrible they've been treated. The most they will have to contend with is having their knuckles rapped by the occasional Lawrence H. Summers – who will then get down on his knees and beg for mercy. It would be funny – the stuff of late-night comedy – if it weren't so sad.
Steven Yates [send him mail] has a Ph.D. in Philosophy and is the author of Civil Wrongs: What Went Wrong With Affirmative Action (ICS Press, 1994). He is a professional writer at work on a number of projects including a work of political philosophy, The Paradox of Liberty. He also writes for the Edgefield Journal, and is available for lectures. He has set up a small freelance writing business, Millennium 3 Communications. Currently living in Columbia, South Carolina, he will join the Mises Institute in March as a Rowley Fellow.