- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 12, 2002

Talk about double trouble. Harvard's new president Lawrence Summers must have wondered what sin he possibly could have committed that was horrendous enough to bring both the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton to his campus.

If so, he was not alone. If anyone did not need these two self-proclaimed voices "for the voiceless," it was Cornel West, the center of the controversy. Mr. West, whose speaking style can best be described as nuclear, has a pretty strong voice of his own in the university's famous Afro-American Studies Department and the sort of rock-star national fame that universities covet.

Although there is some disagreement in news accounts of Mr. West's recent get-acquainted discussions with Mr. Summers, the former treasury secretary who arrived at Harvard six months ago, it is clear their first conversation did not end cheerfully.

Mr. Summers is reported to have "rebuked" Mr. West for not spending enough time with students while working on Bill Bradley's presidential campaign and, more recently, Al Sharpton's presidential exploratory committee. Mr. Summers also suggested that Mr. West had contributed to serious grade inflation problems at Harvard, where more than 50 percent of the grades given out each year are A's.

(This is sometimes called "the Lake Wobegon effect" in academic circles, after author-entertainer Garrison Keillor's mythical place where "all of the children are above average.")

He also "encouraged Professor West to write a major academic book," Mr. Summers says, instead of such recent projects as a spoken-word CD in which his eloquent intonations are accompanied by a jazz combo.

Those may not sound to most of us like crippling requests, except that Mr. Summers apparently was quite unfamiliar with the many books Mr. West already has written. Speaking as a fellow author, let me tell you: There is no greater insult.

"He hadn't read a word I had written," Mr. West told Tavis Smiley in a National Public Radio interview. "Let's make sure we all do our homework before we engage in these kinds of exchanges."

Henry Louis Gates, the chairman of the Afro-American Studies Department, Anthony Appiah, William Julius Wilson and other black faculty joined Mr. West in expressing indignation over the reputed disrespect. Reports hit the New York Times and other major Eastern newspapers that Mr. West might go back to Princeton, where he earlier gained fame, and some of Harvard's other black faculty superstars might follow.

Mr. West, like Mr. Gates, among other Harvard faculty, has written more than a dozen scholarly books, but he also has become what academia and the media call a "public intellectual." He uses his academic position as a platform from which he can influence the world, not just other academics, through op-ed pages and other popular media. Mr. West has written more than a dozen books, at least one of which made the New York Times' Best-Seller's List. To public intellectuals, that list is roughly what the Rose Bowl is to college football. But in the academic world it can be virtually a stigma, evidence that you are not serious enough.

Drawn to this heat like moths were Mr. Jackson and Mr. Sharpton. Both said they saw affirmative action and other sensitivities to minorities under assault. Besides that, a good black brother was getting dissed. Yet, if anyone does not have to worry about joining the jobless, it is Mr. West and the rest of Harvard's "black brain trust," as Mr. Gates dubbed the blue-ribbon talent his department has attracted in the past decade. Mr. Summers has made it clear he does not want Harvard to lose them or its diversity-minded admissions and recruitment policies.

And he reportedly has said as much to such stars as William Julius Wilson, whose research on urban "underclass" poverty has helped shape national policy and debate since the late 1970s when he was at the University of Chicago.

Perhaps Mr. Summers was a bit disoriented by his switch from Washington, where conservatives dominate political life as much as liberals dominate at the universities. Still, he has not shied away from controversy. Since his arrival, he has denounced grade inflation, scolded those who have demeaned patriotism from the left and government from the right, and called for diversity in students and faculty that considers more than just race.

Those sentiments, reasonable and moderate to those of us who live in the real world, pose a confrontational challenge to various constituencies in the academic world, where, as Henry Kissinger once said, the "politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small."

It is not surprising, then, that Mr. Jackson and Mr. Sharpton would be drawn to such a natural hotbed of political correctness as if it were liberalism's last stand. In fact, affirmative action is hardly under siege at Harvard, although its tenured black faculty remains small. "Now we have about 16 (tenured black faculty), and people think the Negroes are taking over," Mr. West said. "Well, that's a joke. Sixteen out of 2,000 is still a drop in the bucket."

They can do better and so can aspiring black students. As a black parent, I would like to see some big growth in the talent pool to fill Harvard faculty positions and other fine jobs. Among the first challenges, we need to reduce the black-white test score gap in the early teen years. Mr. Jackson and Mr. Sharpton, as figures many young people respect, could do a lot to help. Such work is not as glamorous as a press conference at Harvard Yard, but the long-term results will be more rewarding for everyone.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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