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
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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.