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.