- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 22, 2006

It was too good to be true. After decades held hostage by the commissars of political correctness, America’s oldest, most prestigious university appeared to have begun a slow but steady return to cold rationalism and the most exacting standards of academic excellence. These were the very traditions that made it the nation’s most impressive and admired place of learning, and finally they were making a comeback. But it was not to be.

This week confirmed what many had suspected all along: Harvard, like so many other institutions, has fallen to education’s enemies.

On Tuesday, Harvard President Lawrence Summers announced his resignation after only five years on the job. It was the shortest tenure of a Harvard president in 144 years. Mr. Summers was forced out in what Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, a Summers supporter, called a “coup d’etat” by “the academic hard left.” Interestingly, neither Mr. Summers nor Mr. Dershowitz is politically conservative.

Mr. Summers was treasury secretary under President Clinton. This was not the case of a conservative executive trying to impose his political views on liberal professors. It was a case of a minority of radical professors in the college of arts and sciences (Mr. Summers had widespread support in the graduate and professional schools, where the forces of political correctness are less entrenched) trying to keep the administration compliant.

Mr. Summers famously drew the ire of the far left faculty by openly challenging the orthodoxy they were accustomed to enforcing on campus. He made clear that he wanted professors to be more involved with undergraduates; he refrained from offering blanket support for affirmative action; he labeled as “anti-Semitic” a campus campaign to withdraw all university investments from Israel; he wanted to see more patriotism on campus after September 11; and, most famously, he challenged the politically correct line that women hold fewer top academic positions in science because, and only because, of sexual discrimination by men.

But all those comments were not the real reason the radicals moved against Mr. Summers. They merely provided the cover. Of most concern was Mr. Summers’ refusal to accept the long-standing deal the radicals had worked out with previous administrations.

The deal is this: The university provides certain radical professors with tenured positions from which they cannot be fired and leaves them free to preach their political theories and dabble in their hobbies (such as recording pop albums or amassing collections of rap music). In exchange, the radicals refrain from calling the administration racist, sexist, etc.

Mr. Summers refused to accept the arrangement. In 2001 he challenged celebrity professor Cornel West (who preferred making albums to lecturing or research) to get back to doing what the university was paying him to do, which was research and teach. Mr. West, who is black, played the race card. But Mr. Summers surprised everyone by not backing down. Mr. West packed his belongings and shipped off to Princeton.

Then in 2004, Mr. Summers did it again. He refused to grant tenure to professor Marcyliena Morgan, a “hip hop scholar” who did virtually no research (she had written a single book years before) and whose teaching received lousy reviews. Her principle claim to tenure was that she had created an immense collection of rap music. She draws her pay at Stanford now.

Mr. Summers very clearly was not going to be intimidated by the usual methods.

If not even charges of racism would stop him from holding everyone to the same tough standards, the sweet deal the radicals had worked so hard to craft would soon end. For them, there was only one option. Mr. Summers had to go.

Last year a hardcore group of leftist arts and sciences professors voted no confidence in Mr. Summers. They represented not only a minority of the university’s faculty, but a minority in their own department. Not even the students were on their side (one poll found that 57 percent of students supported Mr. Summers, and only 19 percent thought he should resign). Still, the threatened professors were organized and media savvy. They formed a coalition with other professors who grew to personally dislike the admittedly abrasive president, and when they threatened another vote of no confidence they were able to greatly undermine his authority.

Unfortunately this is no Tom Wolfe novel. The ramifications of Mr. Summers’ resignation will be widely felt. Mr. Summers has become a trophy of militant political correctness. His defeat will embolden radical professors elsewhere and could set back academic reform all over the country. After seeing what happened to the president of Harvard — who had the support of most students, most professors and almost the entire board of directors — what state university administrator will dare challenge his own activist faculty members? The dirty little secret of academia is that while few professors are politically conservative, the truly radical leftists tend to be a small but vocal minority who hold the rest of the campus hostage through intimidation and scare tactics. They succeed in silencing dissent and squashing academic freedom not because they have the numbers (they often don’t), but because administrators are afraid to stand up to them.

What the radicals at Harvard have achieved is a momentous upset. The equal and fair application of the highest academic standards is no longer an option at America’s top university. The chilling effect will be felt not only in the Ivy League, but at colleges and universities nationwide. All that fans of academic freedom and the highest standards of scholarship can hope for is the arrival somewhere of another administrator more daring than Lawrence Summers. After this episode, however, we might be waiting a very long time.

Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader.


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