The Magazine

Summers's End

Too bad Harvard's president wouldn't take his own side in a quarrel.

Mar 6, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 24 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
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This was about more than whether I speculated in an area in which I am not a recognized expert. It was about whether the modern American academy is any longer a safe haven for true diversity of thought and opinion, and whether some subjects are so toxic to a subsection of the academic left that they are taboo. We extol the virtues of diversity in a wide variety of programs--including mandatory freshman orientation and "sensitivity training" programs that come perilously close to being exercises in thought-reform--but we penalize diversity of knowledge and opinion. I was not immune to these forces, as exhibited in my shameful attempt to buy off my critics with a $50 million bribe for a laundry list of senseless initiatives compiled by two women's task forces that will do little more than further expand an already bloated administrative structure. I hereby declare that initiative dissolved. The unspent money will go to endow a much-needed and long-overdue chair in academic freedom at Harvard Law School.

The utterance of these or some such words might not have been the height of prudence. But Summers could have made himself a hero. Public opinion was with him last year when the story first broke after MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins told the Boston Globe that she walked out of the private, invitation-only session because, if she hadn't, "I would've either blacked out or thrown up." Imagine a no-nonsense Summers tactfully refraining from pointing out the 19th-century Victorian female stereotypes in which Hopkins was trafficking, while remarking on the oddity of a biologist protesting the consideration of biological factors as part of an explanation of human behavior.

Alas, the Harvard establishment already seems to be drawing the wrong lesson from Summers's resignation. Summers critic Peter T. Ellison, a professor of anthropology and former dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, told the New York Times: "I think the repair will be virtually instantaneous. I think the problem has been essentially President Summers himself."

In fact, the problem was that Summers was untrue to his sound instincts about the university's mission and unable or unwilling to articulate the principles that should organize and refine those instincts. Despite his considerable gifts, the bright promise when he was appointed in 2001, his evident joy in Harvard's remarkable students and his varied achievements during his five years at the helm, Summers's failure to stand up for himself and for the principle of free inquiry when both were under assault--indeed, his collaboration by means of public acts of abasement and contrition before those who would cut off speech and research in order to protect their own tender sensibilities and political agendas--leaves Harvard more enfeebled and more confused about its mission than when he arrived.

Peter Berkowitz teaches at George Mason University School of Law and is the Tad and Dianne Taube senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution. Before Summers's presidency, Berkowitz was denied tenure at Harvard, which he litigated unsuccessfully on procedural grounds, losing his case in the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts in September 2003.