Lawrence Summers, secretary of the treasury under President Clinton, is Harvard's new president. In no time at all, he made the campus very nervous. He came out in favor of patriotism. (A shocker.) He gently challenged Harvard's famous hostility to the armed forces, hinting that the 32-year exile of the ROTC from the Harvard campus might be rethought, and suggesting that the Kennedy School of Government might want to give one of its public service awards next year to someone in uniform. Even more irritatingly, he said that America's "coastal elites" are drifting too far from the nation's mainstream.
There were other offenses, too. He suggested that Harvard's student charities should stick to real charitable work, like tutoring children, and not keep mutating into political activism, like fighting school vouchers. Above all, he failed to praise affirmative action in his inaugural speech. At Harvard, this is like praying aloud at the Vatican while refusing to use the word "God."
So you knew something would happen. What happened, and what sent the media into shock, was the hurting of Cornel West's feelings. West told the media that Summers had "attacked and insulted" him and treated him with "disrespect" in a private chat. Apparently Summers thought that West gives out way too many A's and A-pluses in his introductory class in African-American studies (if so, West's generosity must be remarkable, since half of all marks handed out at Harvard are A's or higher). Summers encouraged West do a major academic book. Apparently Summers also suggested that West is spending too much time and attention on his political and pop career, making musical CDs and stumping for Bill Bradley in 2000 and helping the "exploratory" Al Sharpton-for-president effort now.
The background for this is that university presidents are supposed to be figureheads and fund-raisers who leave the professors alone. Besides, celebrity professors who pursue media careers while not putting forth much effort on campus are especially supposed to be left alone, since their high profiles add to the luster and fame of the university.
West is a talented showman and an amiable self-promoter. On his Web site, he praises his own "unmatched eloquence" and calls his CD "in all modesty ... a watershed moment in musical history."