Anatomy of Summers's Fall · 26 February 2006

Filed under: Massachusetts


By Jeff Jacoby--Boston Globe--02/26/06

Harvard's 27th president announced his resignation last week, but Lawrence Summers's fall from grace actually began on Oct. 26, 2001, less than four months after his presidency began. That was the date on which he addressed the annual public service awards banquet at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and had the temerity to speak favorably of American patriotism -- and, even more audaciously, to express admiration for the men and women who serve in the US armed forces.

Patriotism is a word ''used too infrequently" on campuses like Harvard's, Summers said, and too many academics regard those who wear the uniform with ''disaffection." He stressed ''the importance of clearly expressing our respect and support for the military," and pointedly voiced the ''hope that when you have this award next year, among those who will be recognized will be those who have served our country in uniform."

Summers followed up that message in a Veterans Day letter to Harvard cadets and midshipmen, writing that he ''and many others deeply admire those of you who choose to serve society in this way." And in remarks to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, he described military service as ''vitally important to the freedom that makes possible institutions like Harvard."

In most of America, such views are commonplace. But at Harvard -- where ROTC has been banned for more than 30 years -- more than a few faculty members were bound to find them appalling. Just how much they rankled is suggested by the fact that on the day Summers resigned, one of his most virulent opponents -- anthropology professor J. Lorand Matory -- told an interviewer that among the things that made the university president so unbearable was his ''telling us we should be more patriotic."

But that was only one of his sins. Believing that a university president ought to take an interest in the caliber of faculty work, Summers told black-studies big shot Cornel West (in a private conversation that was leaked to the press) that recording hip-hop CDs and promoting the presidential campaign of Al Sharpton were not the sort of pursuits Harvard expected of its scholars. Whereupon West decamped in a huff for Princeton -- but not before playing the race card, declaring that he could not bear such ''disrespect and being dishonored," since it is ''the only thing one has as a human being, let alone as a black person in America."

Summers infuriated campus authoritarians again in September 2002 when he deplored the ''profoundly anti-Israel views . . . increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities," like the movement to single out Israel for economic strangulation and the expulsion of Israeli scholars from the boards of academic journals. Anti-Semitism used to be associated with right-wing yahoos, Summers said, but it was now on the left that ''serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent." For this he was accused of everything from McCarthyism to paranoia. ''Ascribing bigotry to those with whom you disagree," one critic wrote in the Globe, ''is the last refuge of cowards." Unless, of course, those being described are in fact guilty of bigotry.

But nothing fueled the anti-Summers bonfire like his suggestion last year that innate differences between the sexes might have something to do with the scarcity of women at the highest levels of math, science, and engineering. He cushioned his hypothesis with plenty of caveats and said he ''would like nothing better than to be proved wrong." But none of that mattered to his inquisitors, who blasted him as a sexist with a contemptuous attitude toward women. Typical of the hysteria was Mary C. Waters, Harvard's sociology department chairwoman, who said the remarks showed ''that the president of Harvard didn't think that women scientists were as good as men." Summers hadn't said any such thing, but that made no difference to the mob howling for his head.

Harvard's motto is ''Veritas," Latin for ''truth." But at Harvard, as in much of academia, ideology, not truth, is the highest value. Nothing exemplifies the moral and intellectual rot of elite academic culture like the sight of Harvard's president falling on his sword for the crime of uttering statements that the vast majority of Americans would regard as straightforward common sense.

''I would sooner be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory," William F. Buckley Jr. avowed more than 40 years ago, ''than by the 2,000 members of the faculty of Harvard." There was a time when Buckley's words might have seemed hyperbolic. No longer.

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is jacoby@globe.com.