The Magazine

Harvard Lays an Egg

The triumph of the diversity faction and the fall of Larry Summers

Mar 6, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 24 • By JAMES PIERESON
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

When the late Allan Bloom visited the Harvard campus some years ago to deliver a speech on his bestselling book The Closing of the American Mind, he began his remarks with the salutation, "Fellow Elitists," a takeoff on Franklin Roosevelt's address years earlier to the nativist Daughters of the American Revolution which he introduced with the words, "Fellow Immigrants." Bloom was having some fun at the expense of Harvard's students and faculty, all of whom had competed mightily to gain entrance to one of the most selective and prestigious colleges in the world, only to turn around once there to adopt a posture of thoughtless egalitarianism. He was also making the deeper point that higher education ought to involve the pursuit of excellence rather than of vulgar equality or "diversity."

Bloom's indictment came to mind with the news of the forced resignation of Lawrence Summers from the presidency of Harvard University. Summers, perhaps in a somewhat ham-fisted style, had tried to make the case for excellence at Harvard but generated furious resistance and opposition in the process. His ouster speaks volumes about the anti-intellectualism that is engulfing Harvard and others of our great academic institutions.

Summers's resignation, to be sure, came as no surprise. The announcement even seemed anticlimactic in view of the battle that had been waged against him for more than a year by activists on the arts and sciences faculty. Given this strife, it was perhaps inevitable that members of the Harvard Corporation, the university's governing body, would sooner or later ask him to step aside. His term in office, which began with such promise, thus ended prematurely after just five years, the shortest of any presidential tenure at Harvard in more than a century. When Summers departs in June, he will be replaced on an interim basis by Derek Bok, who will turn 76 in March, and who was himself president from 1971 to 1991.

Still, notwithstanding its inevitability, the end of the Summers presidency marks a sad day for higher education. Despite all the talk about his abrasive personality and headstrong management style, Summers was a casualty of the left-wing ideological standards erected by Harvard's arts and sciences faculty. The historian Bernard DeVoto wrote decades ago that the Harvard he knew was "a republic within the Republic, a church that cuts across the churches, a class drawn from all classes." That ideal now seems far beyond our reach. The Harvard on display during the Summers ordeal resembles more a mad collection of petty interests pushing and pulling on one another for money, position, and advantage.

There are certainly many lessons to be learned from this debacle, but two immediately stand out: first, that our major academic institutions are run by their faculties, not by trustees or students, or by donors or alumni; and, second, that the activist members of faculties will not accept from presidents (or deans or provosts) any contradiction of cherished ideological assumptions, most of which revolve around the magical word "diversity." Presidents at other institutions, and administrators harboring aspirations for advancement to presidential posts, are bound to take note of Summers's downfall, and will certainly take steps to avoid a similar fate.

Summers was appointed in 2001, the 27th in a line of presidents that stretches back to Harvard's founding in 1636. He came to the post with a reputation as something of a wunderkind in the fields of economics and finance: one of the youngest individuals in modern history to win tenure at Harvard, the first social scientist to receive the prestigious Alan T. Waterman award from the National Science Foundation, winner of the John Bates Clark medal given by the American Economics Association to the outstanding American economist under the age of 40. By 45 he had served as chief economist of the World Bank, undersecretary of the treasury for international affairs, and, finally, secretary of the treasury in the Clinton administration. His impressive record, however, was accompanied by a reputation for brashness and blunt-speaking that many warned would lead to trouble in academe, where sensitivity and consultation trump just about every other virtue.

Summers's appointment was initially hailed as a sign that Harvard wished to renew a tradition of having as its president an educational visionary who might be a reformer in Cambridge but also a national spokesman for the ideals of higher education. His arrival on campus was thus something of a slap at Neil Rudenstine, his publicly diffident predecessor, who had himself run afoul of important faculty interests with the suggestion that Harvard should amend its ancient financial rule of "every tub on its own bottom." At most institutions, presidents are expected to be fundraisers and managers rather than intellectual spokesmen, but Harvard with its $26 billion endowment could afford a leader who might communicate ideas instead of romancing potential donors full time.

The thought that Summers might be the modern day equivalent of nationally influential presidents like Charles William Eliot (1869-1909) or James Bryant Conant (1933-53) was perhaps naive in view of the changes of the past half-century--in particular the emergence of an assertive and highly politicized faculty. Nevertheless, Summers gave it a good try. In an early address, he laid out an ambitious (and admirable) agenda for strengthening undergraduate education, recruiting outstanding young scholars who might begin to replace a rapidly aging tenured faculty, and turning Harvard into an institution that tolerates a spectrum of controversial ideas. Summers, moreover, made clear early and often that he was devoted to a meritocratic ideal that required the recruitment of the best scholars in the world. Yet he may not have fully realized that such a commitment put him on a collision course with parts of the faculty just as fully committed to an egalitarian conception of the university.

Summers's background as a political appointee in Washington may have been poor preparation for a modern college president. He would have learned there that just about every position taken generates adversaries from the opposition party but also allies from one's own. As a Democrat, moreover, he would have also seen that opposition came generally from conservatives. The world of national politics encourages disagreement, debate, and opposition as instruments of effective policy. None of these lessons applied at Harvard, where a controversial position would generate nothing but opposition, important disagreements were suppressed or ruled out of bounds, and the political spectrum was distorted far to the left. He had been used to operating as a liberal, but now found himself on unfamiliar ground as a moderate or-heaven forbid!--a conservative.

Summers's major sin in the eyes of the liberal and left-wing faculty was his insensitivity to the diversity regime that has taken over at Harvard and just about every other major institution in the country. This regime is propped up by mythical presumptions, the major one being that the United States has been guilty of oppressing or otherwise holding back various groups, especially blacks, women, homosexuals, American Indians, people of Hispanic origin, and others who make up perhaps 75 percent of our population. These groups, so the argument goes, are owed special consideration on the campus by virtue of their victimization, which means in practice that no one is allowed to question their oppressed status, their claims to special consideration, or their privilege to complain about any institutional practice that they find inconvenient.

The diversity industry that has grown up around the campus asserts (without any evidence) that a departure from proportional representation in any field or department is, ipso facto, evidence of discrimination. This is why there exist preferential hiring practices for women and minority groups on every campus, and various scholarship programs, publications, study centers, and curricular offerings designed specifically for every designated group. All have created their own advocacy groups to press their claims, the most influential one on the Harvard Campus being the Women's Caucus of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Most intelligent people understand that these practices have been carried beyond the point of absurdity but have no idea how to rein them in. Summers, as it turned out, endorsed the diversity regime in the abstract (otherwise he could never have been hired) but, given his simultaneous belief in excellence, could not help but take steps or make comments that contradicted it.

Summers's transgressions began shortly after he took office, when he challenged Cornel West, a member of the Afro-American Studies Department, to pay more attention to scholarship than to making recordings of rap music-a seemingly appropriate and innocuous charge for a president to give to a faculty member. Yet West took offense, as did others on the faculty, on the grounds that Summers had been racially insensitive and had no right to chastise a member of the faculty about his research. For his pains, West was inundated with handsome offers from other institutions, and shortly headed off to Princeton.

Summers next gained public attention by observing that efforts to force the university to divest investments from companies doing business with Israel were, as he said, "anti-Semitic in their effect if not in their intent." Critics on the faculty denounced this accurate statement as "inflammatory"--while ignoring the inflammatory actions that had provoked it. Summers later spoke warmly about the American military, expressed support for our soldiers in the field, and called for the return of ROTC to the campus--all of which further inflamed left-wing elements on the faculty.

Then, early last year, Summers dropped the bomb that would lead directly to his ouster. Speaking at a research conference on the subject "Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce," he suggested, citing research literature, that the paucity of female professors in fields like physics, astronomy, and mathematics was due less to discrimination and more to career choices, the unwillingness to put in "80 hour weeks" and differences in "aptitude" between the sexes. He called for more research on the subject, though his critics on the faculty, outraged by the suggestion that there might be deep differences between men and women, insisted that it was wrong for the president to call for research on a subject about which they had made up their minds.

Summers's remarks, which lasted forty minutes, were a broadside, from the point of view of an economist, against the central premises of the diversity ideology. Many factors other than discrimination, he said, account for group disparities in various occupations, and it is impossible to engineer representational equality in a marketplace in which people are constantly making independent choices as to how to allocate time and money. Summers's assessment was obviously true, but it was also one that left-wing faculty members, particularly feminists, did not wish to hear. The fallout from these remarks is vivid evidence that, of all the victim groups on campus, the feminists wield by far the greatest influence.

It is unfortunate that in response to heated criticisms Summers chose to apologize for his remarks instead of defending them on intellectual grounds. Within a week, he issued an abject apology. "I deeply regret the impact of my comments," he said, "and apologize for not having weighed them more carefully." He went on to say that he regretted sending an "unintended signal" that might discourage talented women from pursuing careers in science. Summers was obviously in internal conflict over the diversity issue, one day attacking its central presumptions while the next apologizing for having so offended key groups on campus.

The episode was a boon for the feminist groups, so much so that one suspects they worked overtime to keep the controversy alive in order to extract maximum concessions from their mortally wounded president. Soon, Summers appointed historian Drew Faust to head an initiative to improve the status of women in the university. She remarked at the time that Summers's talk had created "a moment of enormous possibility" for women on the campus. Next a new "deanship of diversity" was created to advise the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences on issues of importance to women and minorities. Then, a few months later, Summers announced an initiative to spend $50 million over the next decade to increase the number of women on Harvard's faculty.

Summers was plainly working overtime to make amends to those whom he had offended, though it would have been better if he had stood his ground. He might not thereby have saved his job, but he at least would have opened the way for a genuine debate over diversity, which will no doubt be driven underground once more in the wake of this episode.

The apologies and concessions did Summers little good, for the advocates of diversity on campus will tolerate nothing less than wholehearted endorsement of their aims. The uproar led to three tumultuous meetings of the arts and sciences faculty in which Summers was denounced for his remarks about women and science, for his (alleged) imperious management style, and for his violation of the norms of the campus "community"--this last a code word for speaking contrary to the diversity regime. In the last of these meetings, last March, the faculty passed an unprecedented resolution of "no confidence" by a vote of 218 to 185. As Professor Alan Dershowitz has pointed out, the resolution originally contained an explanatory note (later removed) that justified the action in terms of the president's "ongoing convictions about the capacities and rights not only of women but also of African Americans, third-world nations, gay people, and colonized peoples." This note, as Dershowitz concludes, made it clear that Summers's main fault in the eyes of the faculty was that he was not sympathetic to the diversity agenda. No matter how often he apologized, Summers could not remove the stain he had acquired in the eyes of his adversaries. His apologies and concessions, meanwhile, discouraged erstwhile supporters.

Over the past several months, Summers operated more or less defensively, guarding his public comments, occasionally making light of his mistakes, and hoping that ill-feeling among the faculty would subside so that the university could get on with its business. It was an idle wish. The angry recriminations surfaced again a few weeks ago after Summers forced out William Kirby, the popular dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, apparently for failure to advance the president's goals for reforming the general education curriculum. The arts and sciences faculty called another meeting to consider a second vote of no confidence. At this point, members of the Harvard Corporation, particularly Robert Rubin, a Summers supporter and his predecessor as secretary of the treasury, began to canvass faculty members about the depth of their opposition. This, to Summers, must have appeared an obvious sign that he had lost the support of the Corporation. Given the capitulation of the university's governing body, he had little choice but to resign or to be fired.

There are some, both on and off the campus, who will now look to the Harvard Corporation as a source of level-headed guidance for the institution. The Corporation, established by the original charter of the college, is a seven-member governing board consisting of five self-appointed "fellows" plus the president and treasurer of the institution. Yet those who look to this secretive body for leadership are likely to be disappointed, for it is plain that the members of the Corporation greased the skids for Summers's fall, taking their cues from disgruntled members of the arts and sciences faculty and failing to consult with students or with deans and faculty members in the various professional schools.

One explanation for its unhelpful role in this fiasco is that the Corporation itself seems fully committed to the diversity regime that drove Summers from office. There are two liberal Democrats on the panel, Robert Rubin and Robert Reischauer, president of the Urban Institute in Washington, both of whom are policy wonks in the Summers mold. There appears to be a "feminist" seat on the board, currently occupied by Nannerl Keohane, formerly president of Wellesley and later of Duke, who replaced Hanna Holborn Gray, retired president of the University of Chicago.

It also appears that there is a "black" seat on the Corporation, which was occupied until late last year by Conrad K. Harper, a New York lawyer, who resigned in protest against statements Summers had made about women and minorities. He was replaced recently by Patricia King, Georgetown University law professor and wife of the left-wing author Roger Wilkins. King is a feminist activist who in 1991 testified against confirmation of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. More recently she was one of the signers of a petition at Georgetown calling on Congress "to repeal the disgraceful Solomon amendment" (which requires universities to permit military recruiters on campus or lose federal funding) and reaffirming the faculty's opposition to military recruiting on campus. King, who takes her post in the spring, seems an unlikely ally for any president in the Summers mold.

The membership of the Corporation, in other words, runs the gamut of political opinion from A to B, from liberal Democrat to left-wing Democrat, and seeks to represent the same groups as are active on the arts and sciences faculty. It stands to reason that they would be willing to force out their president.

Nevertheless, important positive elements emerged from the Harvard crisis. Summers was ousted through an arrangement between the Corporation and the arts and sciences faculty, but he maintained strong support from the deans of the professional schools, including David Ellwood of the Kennedy School, Elena Kagan of the law school, and Jay Light of the business school. Many alumni and important donors to the university could not understand why a president with Summers's credentials should be driven out on the basis of the charges made by his faculty adversaries.

Harvard's students, moreover, in a poll conducted by the Harvard Crimson, supported Summers by a ratio of 3 to 1. Many noted that they liked Summers, saw him frequently on the campus, and felt that he was an effective leader for the institution. The Crimson itself editorialized in favor of Summers, opposed his ouster, and said that the university was the loser by his departure. It should be noted that the most comprehensive and reliable reporting on this entire episode came not from the Boston Globe or the New York Times, but from the part-time student editors of the Crimson. The younger generation may not buy into the diversity mythology as their professors do.

Indeed, perhaps today's students, along with others who believe in liberal education, can take heart from the words of the late historian Richard Hofstadter. Speaking at commencement exercises at Columbia University in 1968 shortly after student radicals shut down the institution, he said, "A university is not a service station. Neither is it a political society, nor a meeting place for political societies. With all its limitations and failures, and they are invariably many, it is the best and most benign side of our society insofar as that society aims to cherish the human mind." He went on to say that the university is "a center of free inquiry and criticism-a thing not to be sacrificed for anything else." We have gone a long way toward sacrificing it, but out of the wreckage of this sad affair we may begin to see a way back.

James Piereson is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute in New York.