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."
Summers' suggestion about a major academic work reflects a widespread feeling that West has reached the top at Harvard -- he is paid a great deal of money and is one of only 14 professors on campus who carry the prestigious designation of "university professor" -- without adding much to the academic discussion of race or any other subject. Newsweek columnist Fareed Zakaris calls West's books "weak and fatuous." In 1995, New Republic critic Leon Wieseltier wrote a long essay concluding that West's books are "almost completely worthless." In this context, Summers was right to urge West to buckle down for academic work and ease up on the celebrity preening.
What Summers failed to figure out -- and his naivete here is stunning -- is that his little chat with West would immediately be defined as a racial incident. Sure enough, West and other stars of Harvard's black studies department threatened to move to Princeton. The circus came to town -- Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton showed up to deal with (i.e., inflate) the supposed racial crisis.
In the words of conservative black scholar Shelby Steele, the "predictable choreography of black indignation and white guilt" began to unfold. "Political correctness is what whites have the authority to say about blacks, no matter what they see," Steele wrote. Even pushing for excellence from a talented but underperforming black professor was a horrible violation of the rules of correctness, therefore a racial if not a racist act. If Summers had pushed a white professor to try harder, nobody would have cared.
The script calls for the offending white to cave in, and that's what Summers did. He publicly expressed regrets to West and issued the long-awaited ritual endorsement of affirmative action. A few Summers supporters tried to argue that a cave-in had not occurred, since he had merely praised "diversity," not affirmative action. But no, a close look at what he said showed that the dust-up with West had in fact pushed him to say what he had avoided for five months, that preferences were wonderful.
West has won, and he is no longer in any danger of being pushed to do anything at all. And Summers has fumbled his first big chance to speak out honestly and make a difference at Harvard. Too bad.