The Magazine

Fear and Intimidation at Harvard

From the March 7, 2005 issue: What do academic women want?

Mar 7, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 23 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
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Cambridge, Massachusetts

AT LAST WEEK'S HARVARD FACULTY MEETING, President Larry Summers saved his job, but he took a pummeling from his angry critics. Summers is easily the most outstanding of the major university presidents now on the scene--the most intelligent, the most energetic, as well as the most prominent. So, alarmed at his abilities and intentions, the Harvard faculty decided it would be a good idea to humiliate him.

Summers has supporters, and not all the faculty joined in the game of making him look sick. But the supporters, like Summers himself, were on the defensive, making concessions, and the critics were not. The critics consist of feminist women and their male consorts on the left. But since the left these days looks opportunistically for any promising cause, it is the feminists who are the core opposed to Summers. Together the feminists and the left make up perhaps half the faculty, the other half being moderate liberals who are afraid of the feminists rather than with them.

Summers saved his job by skating backwards, listening to his critics without demur and occasionally accepting their harsh words by saying he agreed with them. At no point did he feel able to say yes, but . . . in order to introduce a point of his own in response. His accusers were relentless and, as always with feminists, humorless. They complained of being humiliated, but they took no care not to humiliate a proud man. They complained too of being intimidated, but they were doing their best to intimidate Summers--and they succeeded.

At the meeting many said that the issue was not academic freedom vs. political correctness, as portrayed by the media, but Summers's style of governing. The point has a bit of truth. Summers is an economist, and there is almost no such thing as a suave economist. The great Joseph Schumpeter, a Harvard economist of long ago, claimed to be the world's greatest lover as well as the world's greatest economist (it is said), but he was a singular marvel. The reason why economists are blunt is that words of honey seem to them mere diversion from reason and self-interest, which are the only sure guides in life.

More than most people--to say nothing of university presidents--Summers lives by straightforward argument. He doesn't care whether he convinces you or you convince him. He isn't looking for victory in argument. But his forceful intelligence often produces it, in the view of those with whom he reasons. Sometimes the professors he speaks with come out feeling that they are victims of "bullying," as one of his feminist critics stated. As if to reason were to bully.

One faculty colleague said in response to this, "Can anybody on earth have less reason to fear than a tenured Harvard professor?" True enough, a Harvard professor has both the prominence to awe and, if that doesn't work, the security to escape. But feminists do not think like this. They insist on a welcoming atmosphere of encouragement to themselves and to their plans. If they do not get it, they will with a straight face accuse you of intimidating them even as they are intimidating you.

It takes one's breath away to watch feminist women at work. At the same time that they denounce traditional stereotypes they conform to them. If at the back of your sexist mind you think that women are emotional, you listen agape as professor Nancy Hopkins of MIT comes out with the threat that she will be sick if she has to hear too much of what she doesn't agree with. If you think women are suggestible, you hear it said that the mere suggestion of an innate inequality in women will keep them from stirring themselves to excel. While denouncing the feminine mystique, feminists behave as if they were devoted to it. They are women who assert their independence but still depend on men to keep women secure and comfortable while admiring their independence. Even in the gender-neutral society, men are expected by feminists to open doors for women. If men do not, they are intimidating women.

Thus the issue of Summers's supposedly intimidating style of governance is really the issue of the political correctness by which Summers has been intimidated. Political correctness is the leading form of intimidation in all of American education today, and this incident at Harvard is a pure case of it. The phrase has been around since the 1980s, and the media have become bored with it. But the fact of political correctness is before us in the refusal of feminist women professors even to consider the possibility that women might be at any natural disadvantage in mathematics as compared with men. No, more than that: They refuse to allow that possibility to be entertained even in a private meeting. And still more: They are not ashamed to be seen as suppressing any inquiry into such a possibility. For the demand that Summers be more "responsible" in what he says applies to any inquiry that he or anyone else might cite.

Of course, if you make a study of differences between the sexes with a view to the possibility that some of them might be innate, no violence will come to you. You will not be lynched. But you will be disliked, and you will have a hard time getting appointed at a major (or a minor) university. Feminists do not like to argue, and they consider you a case if you do not immediately agree with them. "Raising consciousness" is their way of getting you to fall in with their plans, and "tsk, tsk" is the only signal you should need and will get. Anyone who requires evidence and argument is already an enemy because he is considering a possibility hurtful to women.

Feminist women rest their cause on "social construction" as opposed to nature. The patriarchal society that has been made by humans can be unmade and remade by humans. But how do we know that the reconstruction will be favorable to women and not a new version of patriarchy? To avoid a resurgent patriarchy or other injustice, society, it would seem, needs to be guided by a principle beyond human making, the natural equality of men and women.

Accepting that principle would require, however, thinking about how far it goes and what natural inequalities in the sexes might exist. This might in fact be a benefit if it induced women to think more about what they want and like, and about what is fair to men and good for children. We do need feminism, because women are now in a new situation. But we need a new feminism conceived by women more favorable to liberty and the common good than the "feminists" of today.

Harvey Mansfield is the William R. Kenan Jr. professor of government at Harvard University.