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February 23, 2005

The case against Summers

Ideologues are spreading misinformation about Larry Summers' dim future at Harvard. They are trying to paint him as a martyr to academic freedom, a visionary leader who fell on his sword to "stimulate open debate." In fact, Summers' controversial remarks to the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) are merely symptomatic of his shortcomings as president.

Elizabeth Anderson has an excellent post about Summers in which she presents evidence that he is no friend of open debate. She argues that it is precisely Summers' arrogant and heavy-handed approach that has alienated his own faculty. Summers has a history of grandstanding and capricious interference. Summers' dealings with Cornel West are a case in point. Anderson writes:

President Summers berates Cornel West for grade inflation, supposedly declining scholarship,  and supporting Al Sharpton's campaign for President.  Professor West leaves in a huff for Princeton.  What's wrong with this?  Comments like this one on the substantive merits of Summers' opinion of West miss the point. Grade inflation is a serious issue well within the province of the President.  But it is ludicrous and demeaning to single out West on this count, given its pervasiveness at Harvard.  Systematic problems demand systematic and impersonal solutions, not arbitrary Presidential second-guessing of the grading patterns of individual faculty whom he holds in contempt.  The same point applies to concerns about scholarly productivity of tenured faculty members.  What may be a legitimate form of institutional accountability and standard-setting in an impersonal, publicly vetted, and universally applied system of rules becomes an imperious violation of academic freedom in the hands of a President who applies privately tailored standards at his personal discretion.  As for West's extra-curricular political activities, these are none of the President's business.  My concern is not only with contract feudalism.  It's with political correctness.  Those who hailed Summers for taking down West, a supposed practitioner of political correctness, should have excoriated Summers instead, for presuming to dictate to faculty what political affiliations are correct for a Harvard professor to have. [Emphasis added.]

Feverish defenses of Summers' academic freedom are utterly beside the point. If Summers is fired, it will be for being a bad president, not for shooting off his mouth to the NBER. Summers is first and foremost an administrator. Tact and diplomacy are essential for a university president. He or she is responsible for maintaining positive public relations, especially with potential donors and prospective faculty members.

Professors are paid to provoke but administrators are paid to make nice.

As far as Summers' future at Harvard is concerned, his remarks to the NBER should be faulted first and foremost for being unprofessional. Summers is an elite administrator who gets paid big bucks to display sound judgment, foresight, and discretion. Professionals prioritize competing goods--e.g., the satisfaction of intellectual provocation vs. the imperatives of a senior administrative position. It reflects poorly on Summers that he couldn't resist the temptation to expound on his pet theories regardless of the easily foreseeable consequences.

If Summers gets the axe it will be for operating like a bull in a china shop for three years. Anyone who claims he's a victim of political correctness is either ill-informed or disingenuous.

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Comments

Completely OT, but...we both lost to Suburban Guerilla in the Most Deserving Wider Recognition Koufax category. well met!

Masters of Obviation.

Some of your posters have been to university and work in and around academia. The idea that feminist/leftist orthodoxy is not the prime culprit in this scenario is absurd.


""As far as Summers' future at Harvard is concerned, his remarks to the NBER should be faulted first and foremost for being unprofessional. Summers is an elite administrator who gets paid big bucks to display sound judgment, foresight, and discretion. Professionals prioritize competing goods--e.g., the satisfaction of intellectual provocation vs. the imperatives of a senior administrative position. It reflects poorly on Summers that he couldn't resist the temptation to expound on his pet theories regardless of the easily foreseeable consequences. ""

These "pet theories" as you refer to them, are what most people regard as common sense.
The idea that there are innate differences between men and women is only held “controversial” and “unprofessional” because of those “smelly little orthodoxies”
Academics hold so dear.

NTodd: Well met, indeed! It was an exciting competition.

It's a pity. He was a good Secretary of the Treasury, by most accounts I've heard. It's really a come-down that he's displaying such a lack of aptitude at leading Harvard. I hope this isn't how we'll have to think of him into the indefinite future.

The idea that Summers should have kept his mouth shut because he's an administrator, not a professor, makes a certain amount of sense to me, but - yesterday I read this op-ed by a couple of Harvard professors who strongly disagreed with Summers' NBER comments. What do you make of it?

Key quote: "Some of our colleagues have suggested that free speech is appropriate for faculty members but not for university presidents. Our position is more nuanced. The beliefs that guide the actions of our leaders affect all of us. We need to know their views, however wrongheaded they may be. When a leader voices objectionable views, he creates a space in which those views can be debated. Summers’ outspokenness gives all of us the opportunity to engage in critical debates about the course of our university under his leadership."

I guess they are arguing that it's better for him to come out and say what he really thinks so we can disprove him, rather than for him to think incorrect thoughts and have them influence his actions, unbeknowst to us. (One of the authors, Banaji, is a psychology professor who I believe researches implicit bias.)

Summers is an elite administrator who gets paid big bucks to display sound judgment, foresight, and discretion.

Brava, Lindsay. You nailed it.

as i slogged through the transcript of summers' prepared (?) remarks, i was flabbergasted at how much he rambled and how little he actually said. "high-powered intense work"--uh, is that one hyphen, or two? his level of articulation reminds me more of a harvard freshman who's just dragged his hungover ass out of bed and over to the conference than the president of an elite university. no wonder everybody there hates him.

Summers wasn't just speculating that there might be gender differences, as the right-wingers love to claim. He said that there were three reasons for women's poor career trajectories compared with men: innate inability, discrimination and socialization. But the MOST IMPORTANT of the three is innate inability.

READ IT IF YOU DON'T BELIEVE ME:
http://www.president.harvard.edu/speeches/2005/nber.html

He's heavily influenced by the evolutionary psychology theories of Steven Pinker. That's why Pinker keeps writing articles in Summers's defense.

Summers said he wanted to provoke. He got what he wanted.

Any woman working at Harvard would be an idiot not to be concerned by Summers's beliefs. Summers's big mistake was in admitting what he really thinks. And how convenient - Summers has been critized for the lower rates of female hirings during his tenure! Well of course it isn't discrimination if they're just innately no damn good!

I'd walk the 3 miles to town to listen to cornel west; but I wouldn't turn the radio on to listen to Larry Summers. ^..^
ps Hey, Fitz- the "smelly little orthodoxies" you impugn are the "pet theories" of others; and both may pass for "common sense". Say something real, love... ^..^

I do not use the term “masters of obviation” lightly.
In all the talk in press and on the net regarding Larry’s comment – the left refuses to contend with his main axiom which is
"There is relatively clear evidence that whatever the difference in means -- which can be debated -- there is a difference in the standard deviation, and variability of a male and a female population."
i.e. – men and women are different (in this case in mathematical ability)

This violates feminist orthodoxy – hence the flap- and the lefts attempts to obviate around the central controversy now that they have secured the proper amends (further affirmative action for women in math & science)
Hell- over at Left2Right they have turned it into a discussion on plagiarism.
Anything but face some hard (but un-alarming) facts, that may challenge precisely those “smelly little orthodoxies” that get the academic left into such a tizzy that they eat one of their own.

No matter – the whole fiasco helps prove our point regarding the present state of the academy.

Nancy,

He actually said the opposite. He said the most important reason was the uneven distribution of childcare responsibilities between men and women.

I'm not sure I agree with Lindsay's principle that college presidents, like diplomats, should never say anything interesting. But it's way too boring to argue about. Personally, I'd be happy to see Summers annoying an international development bureaucracy instead.

As for the allegation that Summers went after West because he supported Sharpton for President, I have never heard it before. That would indeed be outrageous, but I think some evidence is in order.

See my take at http://bigbalagan.typepad.com/big_balagan/2005/02/wolf_amongst_wo.html
Bottom line, its wolf amongst the wolves.
LCGillies

He actually said the opposite. He said the most important reason was the uneven distribution of childcare responsibilities between men and women.
-----------------------

No, this is what he said:

"there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude, and that those considerations are reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination."

He says, right there, that socialization and discrimination are LESSER FACTORS than intrinsic aptitude.

Where did he say the opposite? Here's the link - let me know when you find it.

http://www.president.harvard.edu/speeches/2005/nber.html

BTW - I've already had this argument via email with Steven Pinker, and even he didn't claim that Summers was saying the opposite of what I thought he said.

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