Coup Against Summers a Dubious Victory for the Politically Correct · 21 February 2006

Filed under: Massachusetts

Coup against Summers a dubious victory for the politically correct

By Alan M. Dershowitz | February 22, 2006

A PLURALITY of one faculty has brought about an academic coup d'etat against not only Harvard University president Lawrence Summers but also against the majority of students, faculty, and alumni. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which forced Summers's resignation by voting a lack of confidence in him last March and threatening to do so again on Feb. 28, is only one component of Harvard University and is hardly representative of widespread attitudes on the campus toward Summers. The graduate faculties, the students, and the alumni generally supported Summers for his many accomplishments. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences includes, in general, some of the most radical, hard-left elements within Harvard's diverse constituencies. And let there be no mistake about the origin of Summers's problem with that particular faculty: It started as a hard left-center conflict. Summers committed the cardinal sin against the academic hard left: He expressed politically incorrect views regarding gender, race, religion, sexual preference, and the military.

The original no-confidence motion contained an explanatory note that explicitly referenced ''Mr. Summers' apparently ongoing convictions about the capacities and rights not only of women but also of African-Americans, third-world nations, gay people, and colonized peoples." The note also condemned Summers for his 2002 speech in which he said calls from professors and students for divestment from Israel were ''anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent."

Although the explanatory note was eventually removed from the motion, it was the 400-pound gorilla in the room. Summers was being condemned for expressing views deemed offensive by some of the faculty. I personally disagreed with some of Summers's statements, but that is beside the point in an institution committed to academic freedom and diversity of viewpoints.

In the minds of at least some vocal members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, expressing such politically incorrect views is the academic equivalent of provoking Islamic extremists by depicting Prophet Mohammed in a political cartoon. Radical academics do not, of course, burn down buildings, at least not since the 1970s. Instead they introduce motions of no confidence and demand resignations of those who offend their sensibilities (while insisting on complete freedom of speech for those with whom they agree -- free speech for me but not for thee!).

Once the academic bloodletting began, it was difficult to stanch the wound. Everything Summers did, or did not do, became the object of criticism. Not only was the honeymoon over, the divorce had begun, at least in the minds of those determined to get rid of Summers. When he selected a new dean of Arts and Sciences, there were complaints. When the new dean resigned, there were complaints, some from the same faculty members who opposed the original selection.

When Summers recused himself from any investigation of his friend Andre Shleifer for investing in Russian companies while he was consulting about the Russian economy, he was condemned by some who would have condemned him even more vociferously had he not recused himself.

Summers could do no right in the eyes of his radical critics, who could never forgive him for his perceived original sins and who saw an opportunity to build wider coalitions every time Summers took actions that alienated other groups, as a president -- especially an activist and sometimes abrasive president -- will inevitably do. Some less ideological critics of Summers's leadership style then joined the radicals in a cacophony of strange bedfellows, but the core of the opposition always remained the hard left.

It was arrogant in the extreme for a plurality of a single faculty to purport to speak for the entire university, especially when that plurality is out of synch with the mainstream of Harvard. It was dangerous for the corporation to listen primarily to that faculty, without widely consulting other professors, students, and alumni who supported Summers. Now that this plurality of one faculty has succeeded in ousting the president, the most radical elements of Harvard will be emboldened to seek to mold all of Harvard in its image. If they succeed, Harvard will become a less diverse and less interesting institution of learning governed by political-correctness cops of the hard left. This is what happened in many European universities after the violent student protests of the late 1960s. It should not be allowed to happen at Harvard in the wake of the coup d'etat engineered by some in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Alan M. Dershowitz has been a professor of law at Harvard for 42 years. His latest book is ''Preemption: A Knife That Cuts Both Ways."