Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Presidents and Faculty

University presidents come and go but Lawrence Summers announcement last month that he will resign as Harvard's president has and still continues to create considerable discussion in the media. Summers was best known in the non-Harvard academic world for his politically-incorrect suggestion that the low representation of woman in the sciences could be party due to biological difference between man and woman.

Within Harvard he managed to upset the faculty in other ways and the faculty's lack of confidence in Summers was a factor in his resignation. Many of the opinions I see point to the faculty as unfirable zealots unwilling to allow a reformer like Summers do his job. For example consider the excerpt from an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times.

It now remains to be seen whether Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences is capable of self-critique. Will its members acknowledge their own insularity and excesses, or will they continue down the path of smug self-congratulation and vanity? Harvard's reputation for disinterested scholarship has been severely gored by the shadowy manipulations of the self-serving cabal who forced Mr. Summers's premature resignation. That so few of the ostensibly aggrieved faculty members deigned to speak on the record to The Crimson, the student newspaper, illustrates the cagey hypocrisy that permeates fashionable campus leftism, which worships diversity in all things except diversity of thought.
and this from a professor, Camille Paglia of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

The University of Chicago is getting near the end of its own presidential search as our current president Don Randel is moving on to head the Mellon Foundation. The Search Committee is a combination of trustee members and faculty, where the faculty members of the committee were chosen by election from the faculty at large. If the faculty doesn't like the new president then we will have no one to blame but ourselves.

Update 3/9: That was quick. Bob Zimmer, a mathematician, was just nominated for the University of Chicago presidency.


  1. The concept of "political correctness" was never about the excesses many in the media try to associate with it.

    Simply put, political correctness was about the state not offending the *reasonable* sensibilities of the people it represents. At the most basic level, for example, it means using terms that aren't pejorative. There was indeed a time many people would use terms offensive to black people, native-americans, jews, and other minorities without actually knowing how offensive they were being. The PC movement changed that, and people are now much more aware of how something could become offensive, even if it was inadvertent.

    It's popular today to ridicule something as "being too PC" even though what is really at fault is something else, such as an assault on free speech or free thinking.

    Given all of that, Summers's rhetoric was offensive, and in no way should a university president offend people. He's free to do what he wants on his own time, but while representing Harvard he shouldn't have alienated so many alumni. Had he actually wanted to be careful, he could have made exactly the same point, but without the provocation. This was not an isolated stunt, and he should have no surprise at all about the situation he got himself in.

    Overall, it seems he was more interested in creating controversy and drawing attention to himself than actually reforming anything.

  2. Most external press comments that I've read so far ignore the fact that Lawrence Summers is known for his abrassive management style. In fact, at first Harvard hesitated to make the appointment given his record at the Treasury Department. Seems to me that if he had been more diplomatic he might have succeeded.

    People should avail themselves to all the pertinent facts before rushing to judgement. I've seen upclose a situation which from the outside looked like an innocent professor was being the subject of a random act of injustice, when in practice said (in)famous professor had behaved in the most uncollegial of manners for over twenty years including throwing chairs at department meetings, insulting students, and launching into offensive verbal tirades against any one within 10 ft of his bad temper. Yet to this date there are misinformed people out there who believe this person was witch-hunted by the university. Usually after learning the gory details these people are still outraged at the administration, but this time for not having fired him any sooner.

  3. It bears repeating each time: contrary to widespread reporting, Summers did not simply say that "biological differences may be partly responsible for women's under-representation" (a question that remains open), but that such biological factors would account more than cultural factors, discrimination and prejudice in explaining the under-representation.

    This is the part that got people puzzled, because it is not a thesis supported by researchers in the field and it is contradicted by anecdotal evidence. (For example, the large variance of representation among different countries.)

  4. I read an intelligent article in The New
    Republic about the Lawrence Summers Firing
    which I paraphrase and comment on.
    1) To say he was dismissed because the profs
    were PC is to give the profs too much
    CREDIT. That would imply some sort
    of principle.

    2) In reality they didn't like being told
    a) Teach large survey courses instead of
    esoteric specialities

    b) Stop Grade Inflation

    c) Do real scholarship.

    My two cents: While perhaps he could
    have made his point more diplomatically,
    his points SEEMS valid (note- there are
    counterarguments). The last one is
    the most interesting--- once a professor
    gets Tenure they are FREE to pursue
    any research they want and this SHOULD
    lead to being free to go off in
    unorthodox areas. Is Cornel West
    Cutting a Rap CD in this category?
    I ask this non-rhetorically.
    CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien were told to
    stop writing Childrens stories--- there
    time is better spend writing obscure
    articles that nobody will ever read.
    However, the freedom to do whatever
    research you want should be balanced
    by some notion of `reasonablness'.
    (NOTE- the question of whether or
    not Tenure really does free you could
    be the topic of another blog.)

  5. Cornel West does more scholarship than a lot of tenured professors I know. Let's not knock the man for writing some rhymes.

    Lest we start knocking Bernard Chazelle, who has a self-made album on his website.

    I'm pretty sure I could name some other famous academics/musicians and probably name more famous musicians/academics (Greg Graffin of Bad Religion and Dexter Holland of Offspring and Mass Giorgini of like 10 punk bands)

  6. I would like to remain anonymous, but let me say I am employed as faculty by Harvard.

    There are so many faculty at Harvard, and each has a different opinion of Summers. Undoubtedly there are some who disagreed with him on very specific issues, which the press has locked on to. Things such as how he has dealt with the Afro-Am department, Israel, the move to Allston, etc. And of course his comments about women in science. But the number of faculty who cared about these issues enough to want him removed was very small. And of course the idea that faculty wanted him removed because he had opinions on what courses we should teach and grade inflation is utterly ridiculous.

    At the end of the day, I think the faculty went against Summers because he was a bad manager/leader, pure and simple. His abrasiveness is well known and has been commented on. He was also secretive, domineering, didn't listen well, blamed others for failures he should have taken responsibility for, etc. As a specific problem, nobody wanted to work with him as a Dean. He's the CEO they talk about in business magazines when describing bad CEOs.

    If he had been somehow hugely successful, perhaps his bad management habits could have been overlooked, like for many bad CEOs. But he wasn't.

    Ed Felten explains it much better than I could over at his blog at

  7. Luca, thank you for posting that link.

    I, too, used to think that this was a "PC movement" vs. freedom of speech issue, and although I didn't agree with him, I thought it was OK that he expressed a different point of view.

    Now that I have finally read his comments, I have totally changed my mind about this issue. The guy's pseudo-scientific approach is reminiscent of the Nazi ideology. You know, the way they argued that Jews were genetically defective -- that was more scientific than his "scientic" argument. Wow. WOW!

    I am appalled at the Harvard Corporation for having hired him in the first place.

  8. An apt reply to the Camilla piece by Richard Bradley here:

  9. First I will say that I am NOT a Cornell West fan. However, like the previous poster I am tired of hearing people ridicule him (either explicitly or implicitly) for making a "rap CD". Let's be honest, the goal when mentioning the CD is to eliclit ridicule by juxtaposing the image of an Ivy league tenured professor with that of a "gansta" rapper that raps about big screen TV's, cars etc... Has anyone actually heard the CD?

    First, the CD in question is not just a rap CD, but also a spoken word CD (West does not rap on it, he simply recites poems). Second, the topics covered in the CD are in line with West's "scholarship" and activism. Finally, the CD is simply an attempt to bring his work and activism to young African Americans. Whether you realize it or not, Cornell West is very well respected in the African American community, but more importantly, among young African Americans. So (at least in my opinion), his decision to enlist, among others, Tavis Smiley (talk show host on NPR and PBS) and Michael Eric Dyson (Professor at UPenn) to produce a CD that makes history, self-empowerment and politics accessible to young people should be applauded and not mocked.

  10. I strongly agree with the Harvard professor that responded. It was no one thing that President Summers did but the general style in which he did everything.

    Many often agreed with his actions, and thus occasionally enjoyed his brash attitude of cutting the crap. Around Harvard there is enough of that to go around. For example, I found it amusing when he chastised Cornel West for cutting a spoken word album when he was supposed to be on �medical leave�. (Most people responding have missed the last detail of the story�And yes, I have heard the album, and hope never to hear it again� if you think you�re ready).

    This style meant that when he did something or other to upset someone, he really upset them. Eventually, someone became everyone. For me this was the Summers� firing of Dean Harry Lewis (a theoretical CS professor) from the deanship of Harvard College and, in a shameful and underhanded manner, calling it �restructuring� when it was clearly that President Summers wanted someone more under his control in the position.

    However, to pick on President Summers for any one thing (however much fun it is) is beside the point. Most of you on the blog seem offended by his comments about the cause for unequal sex representations in academic sciences. Some are not, and are not sympathetic to your feelings that you have the right not to be offended nor to your confession that you yourself, and implicly that they too, are sexist (or is it just the guy next to you who unjustly sexually discriminates). Some of you think he crossed the line with Professor West. Some don�t. The point is, you usually only have to disagree with President Summers on one issue, before he gets under your skin.

    While I do not support the actions of some of the Summers haters on the Harvard faculty, the fact remains the none of the rest of the faculty stood up for him. It is hard to think of a reason why they should have.

  11. In response to:

    " the fact remains the none of the rest of the faculty stood up for him. It is hard to think of a reason why they should have "

    I think this may offer a bit of insight into this particular issue:

  12. So Lance, do you think the University of Chicago is in dire need of reform, as consensus seems to be with Harvard (at least as far as their curriculum is concerned) or can Chicago continue in cruise control mode, tending to its strengths and without any major overhaul?