ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

The Departure of Larry Summers

American Enterprise
February 22, 2006 by Anne D. Neal

In the wake of President Larry Summers’s decision to resign rather than face a second showdown with the Harvard Faculty, one thing is clear—a vote of no confidence is in order. But the vote isn’t about President Summers. Rather, it’s the faculty who deserve a vote of no confidence—and members of the Corporation who would rather run than fight.

During his tenure, Summers had become the unmistakable target of the humanities faculty, who in 2005 voted no confidence in the highly accomplished professor and administrator. 

From press accounts, the earlier vote was all because of Summers’s off-the-record remarks regarding women in math and sciences. But a look at the actual list of faculty grievances reveals a more troubling subtext that offers penetrating insight into the problems of the modern academy.

Since taking office, Summers has done just what the Corporation wanted. He has challenged many of the sacred cows of the academic left and addressed key issues affecting Harvard University and institutions across the country: the lack of intellectual diversity and academic freedom; the dissolution of general education; and hostility to the military, to name only a few. In speech after speech, Summers had been willing to take on the politically correct orthodoxies of the day and offer contrasting perspectives that, until recently, were deemed the very essence of a liberal education. 

But there’s the rub. Diversity, and the conviction that it will foster open-minded exchange and free inquiry, has been a shibboleth of American higher education for three decades. But, as Summers’s remarks about women so clearly revealed, “diversity” only goes so far. The avatars of political correctness are interested in exchanges of ideas, but only those that accord with the party line. This entire kerfluffle over Summers’s comments was a sad commentary on the intellectual rigidity of many faculty, at Harvard and elsewhere, and a clear case for why Larry Summers should have been more outspoken, rather than less.

But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Summers dared to speak the unspeakable when he noted the divide that separates university elites and mainstream America. He acknowledged at a press conference that, “The post-Vietnam cleavage between coastal elites and certain mainstream American values is a matter of great concern.” And he implicitly drew attention to the Harvard community’s negative attitude about the military by noting, “It is all too common for us to underestimate the importance of clearly expressing our respect and support for the military and individuals who choose to serve in the armed forces of the United States.”

While these observations surely are within the purview of a president—with little bearing, one would think on the classroom—that’s not what the faculty thought.  Indeed, when Harvard’s faculty passed its “no confidence” vote last year, Summers’s support for ROTC was cited as one of the three main reasons. Faculty stridency on this issue has nothing to do with academic responsibility, and everything to do with the political and social agenda of faculty activists.

In the latest battle, the faculty is up in arms because of the resignation of Arts & Sciences Dean William Kirby. Kirby shepherded the widely ballyhooed faculty review of Harvard’s core curriculum—an exercise that received considerable attention by institutions across the country. Summers outlined early his hopes that the faculty would “think more rigorously about the level of mastery we ask of our students,” and that “achieving knowledge in key areas would be a crucial element in the general education component.”

Despite clear and commonsense guidance—made, it should be noted, in response to substantial student discontent about the inadequacy of the existing core—what did Kirby and the faculty produce? Little but a report ridiculed by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and the Carnegie Foundation for being a faculty wish list rather than a thoughtful curricular framework. Then again, that would have meant more work for the faculty.

Is it any wonder that when the Harvard Crimson this week polled the students, undergraduates by a three-to-one margin said they wanted Summers to remain as president. In a comment that is striking in its honest analysis of realpolitik, Derek J. Horton ’08 revealed the real rub: “I know the faculty hates him, but I think he's kind of running Harvard like a business—and I respect that.”

At a time when the public generally, and parents in particular, are increasingly concerned about the value of higher education, the sorry state of student learning as compared to our international competitors, and a politically coercive atmosphere in the classroom, Summers has been willing to take on these issues at the highest level. What he has been saying, and what the faculty dislike, is the not-so secret fact that colleges and universities have lost their way because, too often, faculty activists have put perks and politics ahead of the fulfillment of their primary responsibilities: teaching and research.

Academic freedom and the special autonomy that faculties are granted are premised on the condition that professors perform according to professional scholarly standards. But the sad reality is that in places like Harvard, politically correct ringleaders in the faculty—most of them with lifetime tenured positions—are more interested in fulfilling their personal agendas than their academic obligations.

Rather than collapsing before the activists, whose views are not uniformly shared by everyone in the university, the Corporation had an opportunity to take a stand. But by cutting and running—by listening to the academic critics whose indulgence and corruption Summers knew only too well—the Corporation has made clear its first requirement for his replacement: reformers need not apply.