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by Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D.


As if observers needed yet another example of higher education's big lie, Lawrence Summers' recent ignoble loss of the presidency of Harvard University confirms the reality that, despite its claims to the contrary, academia is no longer the certain intellectual marketplace for open discourse and free speech, even on matters of controversy and wide debate.

Widely praised by much of the student body, alumni, and many faculty members for his vision and ability to take a hard look at large financial, ethical, and managerial challenges at Harvard, Summers nevertheless was done in by a core group of Faculty of Arts and Sciences professors, scolds on the intellectual left whose tolerance for freedom of speech and ideas seems to be extended only to those harboring viewpoints identical to their own. "The avatars of political correctness are interested in exchanges of ideas," said Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, in commenting on the affair, "but only those that accord with the party line."

Summers' resignation, as widely known, came after dissenting faculty twice cast the dreaded "no-confidence" vote -- a largely symbolic gesture -- but one that sufficiently eroded his support and made further conversations untenable. The term "no-confidence vote," of course, has become a code word that actually represents, not in this instance a lack in confidence in Summers' managerial or leadership abilities, but rather a rigid unwillingness for certain vocal faculty to embrace ideas -- some bold , some logical -- antithetical to their own. Thus, "no confidence" really means: no affinity, no discussion, and, ironically, no intellectual diversity.

Alan Dershowitz, Harvard's prolific law professor and a supporter of Summers' achievements as president, saw through the protestation of dissenting faculty who paraded the notion that their problem with Summers was merely over his autocratic leadership style. The real issue, according to Dershowitz, is that Summers' articulation of controversial stands on current issues violated the intellectual sensitivities of the left-leaning professors. "Many of the same people who correctly insist on greater 'diversity' based on gender, race and ethnicity seek homogeneity of viewpoints," said Dershowitz. "They want more colleagues who share their ideologically fixed positions. The last thing they want is diversity of viewpoint, especially on issues of gender, race and politics."

That Summers, a vigorous and aggressive intellect, dared to interject diverse viewpoints during his tenure seems to be what finally did him in. Consider, for instance, one of the first incidents which drew the ire of the faculty critics: Summers' call to the Harvard community, after the events of September 11th, for greater feelings of patriotism and a reevaluation of the school's 34-year ban of the Reserve Officers Training Program (ROTC) on campus. Patriotism, Summers said at the Kennedy School of Government, might actually be a positive and virtuous emotion for a wounded nation; it was, he thought, a word "used too infrequently" in academia. "There is a special nobility, a special grace, to those who are prepared to sacrifice their lives for our country."

These were, one would think, not outrageous, jingoistic sentiments for a university president to express, not long after the nation was wounded by homicidal terrorists. But to a large number of Harvard faculty, these calls for patriotic spirit were an inexcusable affront to their clearly-defined and long-standing animus to the military. "Until the Vietnam War," said Daniel Pipes, columnist and Director of the Middle East Forum, "Harvard had always played the role of a patriotic institution. During Vietnam, Harvard, along with other educational institutions, transformed from a patriotic institution into an adversarial one. That adversarial culture has become the reigning outlook," and revealed itself in the indignation that followed Summers' nod of respect for national defense.

It is one thing to reject patriotism and support of the military during a time of war and be insulted to have it suggested to you as positive things; it is another, more incredible, act instead to embrace and encourage the ideology of the perceived enemy of the United States. But a faculty panel felt no compunction in committing this very act when they chose Zayed M. Yasin as a speaker at Harvard's 2002 commencement, whose provocative speech was originally titled, "American Jihad." His faculty supporters apparently saw no insensitivity in using that incendiary term as a theme just after 9/11, nor did it seem to bother them that Mr. Yasin was a current supporter of the Holy Land Foundation, an organization that raised funds for Hamas, among other terrorist groups. Thus, respect for the military and patriotic zeal uttered by president Summers is characterized as heavy-handed, inappropriate pressure; faculty behavior, on the other hand, using a terrorist-comforting mouthpiece to castigate and scold America in an era of terrorism, is, in their view, a perfectly acceptable technique for testing the boundaries of free speech, no matter how seemingly vile the message or intent.

A second bold moral position that Summers assumed was his controversial 2002 speech in which he rejected a divestment petition to withdraw funds from Israel signed by, among others, seventy-four Harvard professors. He observed that anti-Semitic and anti-Israel attitudes, once the invidious products of fringe groups and right-wing cranks, had begun to appear on college campuses, that "profoundly anti-Israel views are increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities. Serious and thoughtful people," he said in the most pointed section of his comments, "are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent."

The campus Left's obsession with the Palestinian cause -- and its contemporaneous and subsequent demonization of Israel -- has grown steadily, legitimatized as an academic endeavor in departments of Middle Eastern studies, and given political might through divestment petitions at universities around the country which Professor Dershowitz has characterized as "economic capital punishment." Even as he was cautioning divestment proponents to examine the true nature of their attitudes and the ramifications of their actions, Summers, unlike his critics, was willing to let even foolish views be heard. "We should always respect the academic freedom of everyone to take any position," he said. But, he added, those who take provocative positions have to assume that their views can and will be challenged, "that academic freedom does not include freedom from criticism."

One thing moralists despise is being questioned about their integrity, and so it was with the indignant petition signers and their fellow travelers, who accused Summers of being intellectually oppressive and "stifling debate" by questioning the morality of their actions and raising a point about the true intent of the divestment effort: singling out Israel specifically among all nations for economic sanctions. They never forgave Summers for expressing his opinion, engaging in intellectual inquiry, and naming them for what they were.

That same sensitivity to language about Israel and anti-Semitism did not seem to faze faculty members, however, when Harvard's English department in 2002 invited poet Tom Paulin to speak as a prestigious Morris Gray Lecturer, and did so, according to English Department chair, Lawrence Buell, to affirm a "belief in the importance of free speech as a principle and practice in the academy." That of course is a noble and purposeful role for universities, save for the fact that Paulin, poet and lecturer at Oxford University, had been quoted articulating the odious sentiment that "Brooklyn-born" Jewish settlers should be "shot dead." "I think they are Nazis, racists, I feel nothing but hatred for them," he told Egypt's al-Ahram Weekly. "I can understand how suicide bombers feel ... I think attacks on civilians in fact boost morale."

The other incendiary topic on American campuses is, of course, race, and for no other topic have administrations been so cowered, shamed, and cajoled into intellectual subservience. Few academics -- and rarely university presidents -- are able to speak frankly about race, either about affirmative action, faculty recruitment, hiring decisions, academic output, or grading standards. Minority faculty -- and the liberal non-minority faculty who support them -- are careful to insure, as they did with Summers in another of his perceived managerial missteps, that there are public consequences for speech and behavior they deem racist. The case in point here was Summers' conflict with the popular professor, Cornell West. Mr. West, one of only 14 coveted "university professors" at Harvard, was chided by Summers about grade inflation in West's popular classes, an absence of scholarly output, and questionable extracurricular activities, such as producing a "hip-hop" CD, working on the failed presidential campaign of Al Sharpton, and, writing pop culture books that Andrew Sullivan of the Sunday Times of London, for one, deemed "unreadable."

Summers informed West of his displeasure with these actions in a private meeting, who announced with outrage that he felt "attacked and insulted" by Summers and the University and would not tolerate that manner of "disrespect." That Summers as president had every right and obligation to speak to his university professors and assess their scholarship was, of course, largely ignored in the great rumblings and accusations which followed, offering those at Harvard who feel that any real or perceived insult to minorities is racism a delightful opportunity to extract political capital.

Stanford linguist and author, John H. McWhorter, looks skeptically on the legitimacy of the liberal's reaction to Summers' conversations with West, observing that "Since the notion that Afro-American studies labors under a permanent racist threat is obviously absurd, what were West and his colleagues really up to in crying 'disrespect' and threatening to quit? Simple: making Summers do the 'I'm not a racist' shuffle not only serves to deflect criticism and ensure that there's no backtracking on racial preferences; it also scares the university into keeping up its generous level of support for Af-Am studies or even increasing it."

More characteristic was West's -- and his supporters' -- reaction to Summers' notion that striving for excellence in scholarship and standards in student grading were reasonable objectives for university professors at the world's greatest university: In a huff, West resigned and packed his things for Princeton, unable to suffer the perceived "disrespect" he received. As he left Harvard, he did take time to call Summers "the Ariel Sharon of American higher education" and "a bully, in a very delicate and dangerous situation," this mysterious danger clearly brought to whatever situation existed at all by West himself -- since it was he who had gone public with what had been private discussions between he and President Summers in the first place. But the point had been made and the damage done to Mr. Summers, just as campus liberals wished.

What professor left behind at Harvard was a group of courses and academic research that are characterized by a latent racism of their own, focusing on permanent racial struggles, institutionalized racism, and texts that regularly denounce capitalism and fundamentally question the racial ethics of white America. "If some of the department's courses are fine, most of them are victimology in its Sunday best; some even verge on fantasy," says McWhorter, commenting on some of the department's assigned text. "Tommie Shelby's Marxist Theories of Racism unpacks 'the role of capitalist development and expansion in perpetuating racial inequality' and boasts a reading list that can serve as a primer on how to rage (articulately) against the machine ... Lawrence Bobo's Race, Segregation and Inequality obsesses over racial inequality, too. Bobo teaches his students that African Americans' problems are permanent, short of a revolutionary rending of the national fabric."

If Summers had been able dodge several ideological bullets in his first encounters with radical faculty members, his final misstep was the fatal shot. Many will remember the near universal opprobrium he found directed at him after his informal remarks at a January 2004 conference on women in science in which he suggested, off-the-cuff and guardedly, that the absence of women from science faculties might be linked to superior quantitative reasoning on the part of men. "Though research amply bears out the unequal distribution of the most abstract mathematical abilities, Summers' allusion to this research set off an immediate spasm of revulsion and horror among Harvard's feminist faculty members," said Heather Mac Donald, a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. In fact, Nancy Hopkins, an MIT professor of biology and a feminism huckster with a record of crying sexism in the advancement of her own career, could barely keep from fainting after hearing Summers remarks. "This kind of bias," she was quick to proclaim to everyone within earshot, including then Boston Globe, "makes me physically sick."

In the firestorm from angry leftist and feminist critics on the faculty that followed, Summers was denounced for even daring to utter words that were one, plausible explanation of the dearth of women in the math and sciences faculties of elite universities: that innate differences in biology might explain the disparity. That particular explanation is, of course, one which liberals and feminists will not accept or abide -- the root cause, instead, must be discrimination, exclusion, or institutional policy that overlooks, shuns, or otherwise excludes qualified women from achieving academic rank.

Harvey Mansfield, professor of government at Harvard University, a long-time advocate for stricter grading policies at the University, and one of Summers' supporters on the faculty, looked at the incident with disgust, even pointing cynically to Ms. Hopkins' own behavior by questioning whether a male would ever be physically sick and near fainting merely by hearing words about scientific inquiry. But he identified the base problem as being the stringency of Summers' opponents in their fundamental refusal to even discuss an alternative view of the issue: for them, only one, acceptable, view was even worth talking about, and opposing views were not to be heard or respected. -- in fact, they were to be reviled and positioned as intellectually abhorrent.

"The fact of political correctness," said Mansfield, "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."

Discussion about sex, like race, is a touchy activity on the Harvard campus -- at least when it comes from President Summers or other conservative voices. However, the arts and sciences faculty who were so outraged and driven to intellectual hysteria by the comments on women's innate scientific abilities do not seem so revulsed when, each year in April, "Gaypril" happens on the Harvard campus, a month-long series of activities sponsored by the Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender and Supporters Alliance to address "marginalization and oppression that exists as a result of stigmatization of queer sexuality and gender."

Gaypril events have kicked of with performances that included a "story entitled 'My First Time' about scandalous escapades with a bisexual male model in Lebanon." Feeling strongly that one-sex, so-called "heteronormative," toilets on campus were a concept of great emotional concern, the list of stimulating events also included "Toilet Training," a documentary about "discrimination linked to gender-segregated bathrooms." Why would this type of scholarly inquiry be necessary on the Harvard campus? That should be obvious, according to BGLTSA publicity chairman Adam P. Schneider. "For transgendered people," he said, "going to a specific bathroom can be a very stigmatizing experience." Rounding off the engaging topics for debate for the 2004 Gaypril funfest was "a day of silence to raise awareness about the prevalence of homophobia, and a panel of sadomasochism experts," not to mention an instructional discussion of sex toys -- all the insure that the struggle for "intellectual and social diversity" goes on at Harvard.

The push by campus liberals for greater sexual and racial diversity, minority hiring, women faculty hiring programs (such as the $50 million diversity office Harvard created after Summers' misstatements) is all done with the most noble of intentions, but it has become the great deception on American campuses. Proponents are not seeking true diversity -- where competing viewpoints, debate about issues, and a rich fabric of intellectual inquiry are encouraged and thrive. Instead, liberal faculties decide what the acceptable ideologies are and how they will be spoken about. Any variance from these standards are punished, curbed by speech codes, mocked as anti-progressive, sanctioned by repressive "codes of conduct," or otherwise denounced by draconian university policies written by the very self-defined "victims" who wish to insulate themselves from, and make themselves blameless for, any examination of their own conduct, speech, or intellectual meanderings.

"No great university can long remain great if it attempts to enforce the equivalent of a religious creed on its members," said Stephan Thernstrom, Winthrop Professor of History at Harvard, one of President Summers' few outspoken supporters. "What really holds the members of the Harvard 'community' together is much more limited. It is simply a common commitment to pursue the truth through disciplined scholarship, and a faith that freedom of inquiry is the best means to arrive at the truth." If this community Professor Thernstrom spoke of is to flourish -- or even survive -- after Summers' departure, real discourse and 'freedom of inquiry' will have to be encouraged and welcomed, not stifled in the name of political correctness.

Richard L. Cravatts. Ph.D., a lecturer at Emmanuel College, Boston University, Tufts University, and Emerson College, writes frequently on religion, social policy, housing development, law, business, and politics. Contact him at or go to his website:

This article appeared in American Chronicle
( March 9, 2006. Thanks are due Steven Plaut for sending it to us.


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