- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 26, 2006

Lawrence Summers’ resignation as president of Harvard University tells us a lot about what is wrong with academia today.

When he took office in 2001, Mr. Summers seemed an ideal Harvard president. He formerly had a distinguished career in and out of the academic world and was a former Harvard professor. There was no obvious reason he would not fit in.

His fatal flaws were honesty and a desire to do the right thing. That has ruined more than one academic career.

Mr. Summers’ problems started early on. He called in Cornel West for a private discussion of Mr. West’s scholarly activities — or rather, Professor West’s lack of scholarly activities.

Cornel West was not inactive. He was active as a great showman on television, he was active in politics, he was active on the lucrative lecture circuit, and he was even active in entertainment, writing and performing rap music. He was also popular with students, as any professor who gives out lots of A’s is likely to be.

What Lawrence Summers wanted to see from Mr. West was the kind of activity expected from full professors at a leading university; scholarly research and writing. Mr. West wrote many things in many places. But even an editor of the liberal New Republic termed his books “almost completely worthless.”

Though the discussion between Mr. Summers and Mr. West was private, Cornel West himself made it a public issue — and a public scandal. Mr. West and his supporters made this a racial issue. That made facts and logic irrelevant. Mr. Summers apologized.

That should tell us all we need to know about Harvard and about academia in general. Neither truth nor standards matter when it comes to one of the ideological raw nerves like race.

Lawrence Summers touched another ideological raw nerve last year in discussing why there were not more tenured female science professors. Since he was addressing a scholarly symposium, he cited hypotheses and data that might explain the under-representation of women at the top in science.

Mr. Summers advanced what he called “the high-powered job hypothesis.” Mothers have a hard time reaching the top in jobs where people work long hours and put everything else aside when the job requires it.

He cited another well-known and unchallenged fact. Although women and men have similar average IQs, men are over-represented at both the lowest and the highest levels. Men outnumber women among both idiots and geniuses.

Since top scientists are drawn disproportionately from people at the highest levels, that is another possible factor in differences between women and men in high-end science.

Mr. Summers also cited other factors, including socialization and discrimination, but this did not prevent another ideological firestorm from erupting. Mr. Summers was simply demonized and the faculty turned against him.

The only politically correct explanation is discrimination.

Mr. Summer apologized — again. But, in the end, these hasty retreats did not save his job.

Despite incessant repetition of the word “diversity” in academe, the academic world is tragically one of the most intolerant places in America when it comes to diversity of ideas. Even the president of Harvard dare not step out of line.

Parents pay the kind of money on which whole families could live, in order to have their children “educated” at elite academic institutions, hearing only one side of a whole range of issues — race and sex being just two of them.

Even if every conclusion with which students are indoctrinated were true, unless those students develop their own ability to weigh opposing arguments, these conclusions will become obsolete as new issues arise in the years ahead. These “educated” people will have developed no ability to analyze opposing sides of issues.

Students are getting half an education at inflated prices and learning only how to label, dismiss and demonize ideas that differ from what they have been led to believe. Their “educated” ignorance is a danger to the future of this country.

Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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