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.

Out of the Frying Pan…

April 20, 2005 by ACTA

Harvard president Lawrence Summers spent the better part of the winter backpedalling after suggesting that biological differences may account at least in part for the comparatively low numbers of women working in the hard sciences and in engineering. The suggestion was mild, balanced, and speculative, framed not as an assertion but as one of several possibilities that researchers might consider investigating. The reaction to the suggestion, however, was one of sustained outrage; it culminated in the Harvard arts and sciences faculty passing a vote of "no confidence" in their politically incorrect leader.

Now it looks as though Summers may be in for another round of accusations, apologies, and attacks on both his character and his qualifications as a leader. This time the subject is Native Americans, and this time Summers has caused offense by citing documented facts that, according to some, don't mesh well with our increasingly simplified historical picture of murderously racist white Americans setting out to destroy innocent Native American communities. In a recent talk, Summers noted that:

For everyone who was killed or maimed in some attack by European-descended Americans on the Native American population, for every conscious death that came in war, 10 were a consequence of the diseases that came to North America with the European immigrants. There are fragmentary accounts of a kind of early biological warfare. You know, let's wrap a blanket around somebody who has smallpox and then encourage some other people to use that blanket. But the vast majority of the suffering that was visited on the Native American population as the Europeans came was not a plan or an attack, it was in many ways a coincidence that was a consequence of that assimilation. Nobody's plan. But that coincidence caused an enormous amount of suffering.

According to a piece in today's edition of, Summers' critics are offended not because he got his facts wrong, but because the facts he cited "minimized the responsibility of the United States for the deaths of so many American Indians" and because he made note of problems within Native American communities. Summers has already begun apologizing for referencing politically inconvenient information, telling the Harvard student paper, The Crimson, that he "did not mean for a moment to diminish the severity or ferocity of the widespread violence that claimed very many lives," and noting that his "aim was to point to the need for conscious efforts at Harvard and in the nation more broadly to contribute to the prosperity and health of Native American communities. I regret if my remarks were understood otherwise."

Summers gave the talk containing this new batch of offensive comments last September. The comments are only now being publicized because they are being used to make a broader political case against Summers' suitability to serve as president of Harvard. The agent in this instance is The Washington Post, which ran a long article last week on Summers' alleged history of offending minority groups. The piece discussed the debacle of the winter, and then moved on to suggest that Summers has a habit of making impolitic and hurtful remarks. It mentioned the September talk, as well as Summers' now infamous run-in with former Harvard professor Cornel West, who decamped to Princeton several years ago after Summers questioned the seriousness of his work. Summers' friendliness to the ROTC program and his disapproval of a 2002 petition urging universities to divest from Israel are also cited as instances of his political impropriety. Late in the article, the author does attempt to capture the complexities of Summers' controversial leadership, but the concluding note is a telling one: "there are a lot of people at Harvard who wonder what will come out of Summers's mouth next, and what, in the end, their institution will look like if Summers succeeds in molding it in his own image." Summers takes shape here as a loose cannon, someone whose demagogic inability to control or craft his words threatens the integrity of Harvard itself. The picture is tellingly overdrawn, its emphasis on Summers' speech revealing in its implicit hostility to the free exchange of ideas institutions such as Harvard are supposed to embody. But it appears to have done its work: This morning, The Crimson is running a long piece that builds on the WaPo article. The snowballing appears to have begun.

Last week, Harvard announced the hire of two tenure-track professors specializing in Native American studies.


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