Rodney Dangerfield at Harvard

Suzanne Fields
Posted: Mar 01, 2005 12:00 AM

Larry Summers, the president of Harvard, aspires to be the Rodney Dangerfield of academe: He don't get no respect.

The least remarked upon issue in the Harvard fiasco is the indignity to which the faculty has subjected their president and, not least, his compliant groveling to keep his job by offering one abject apology after another. This pettiness writ large is familiar to anyone who has worked in academe.

Larry Summers arrived at Harvard with impeccable credentials, together with the asset of having worked in the real world as secretary of the Treasury under President Bill Clinton. This is no doubt the source of much of the resentment. Most Harvard professors are little fish in a little pond, where ego enhancements are limited to the adulation and sycophancy of manipulative teenagers. In 2001, the year before Larry Summers arrived on campus, grade inflation was rampant and 91 percent of the students graduated with honors.

Unless they break through the brass ceiling of academia by writing best-selling books, like Harold Bloom or Alan Dershowitz, or go to Washington to make policy like Henry Kissinger, college professors can only aspire to limited public recognition. They may occasionally get to testify before a congressional subcommittee, or offer learned commentary on the Lehrer Report, but mostly they must be content to publish badly written essays in obscure journals that nobody reads.

Many suffer postmodern media envy. One of the nastiest letters I ever received after I became a newspaper columnist was from a professor at a prestigious university who had obtained her Ph.D. in literature along with me; she wrote to tell me how awful I looked and sounded on television. How dare I leave the grove of academe? Unlike most professors at Oxford and Cambridge, our professors are rarely secure in their own skin and are unable to enjoy robust argument and debate for the sheer joy of contending for their ideas.

Political correctness, of course, is a corollary of the "gotcha!" mentality. Harvard may no longer be the "Kremlin on the Charles" (if it ever was) that Richard Nixon called it, and Larry Summers is no political conservative, but he offended sensibilities on the Charles when he praised ROTC and suggested that it was time to lift the Harvard ban imposed during the Vietnam war. He challenged professors who demanded that Harvard divest itself of investments in companies that do business in Israel: "The suggestion that (Israel's) defense against terrorist attacks is inherently immoral seems to me to be an unsupportable one."

But nothing quite galvanizes the advocates of political correctness more than discussion of the differences, obvious to everybody but a college professor, between men and women. Feminist studies emerged from the research of anthropologist Margaret Mead, who postulated that nearly all differences between the sexes were due to nurture not nature, culture not biology. Many of Mead's conclusions became suspect when it was discovered that certain interview subjects she studied had lied to her, but suspect research continues as feminist theology.

Larry Summers brought on adult female tantrums when he remarked that his twin daughters had turned their toy trucks into a "daddy truck," carrying a "baby truck." Even a cursory reading of the transcript shows that he was trying to lighten up a densely provocative discussion of observable differences between the sexes. But it was the wrong audience.

Any group of mothers listening to the telling of this anecdote would nod their heads with knowing amusement, but humor is not, alas, a feminist virtue. Women who were there complain that he suggested more men than women are found at the highest levels of science and mathematics disciplines and this might be caused by sexual differences. He was neither dogmatic nor adamant, and he noted that the data available is "something people can argue about."

In a full grovel, he later wrote to the faculty that "though my . . . remarks were explicitly speculative, and noted that 'I may be all wrong,' I should have left such speculation to those more expert in the relevant fields." That's right. He might have left it to the professors who teach "Gender and the Cultures of U.S. Imperialism," analyzing the way gender ideologies structure U.S. intervention and expansion in Cuba, Puerto Rico and Iraq.

Three women students at Harvard wrote a defense of their president in the Harvard Crimson, posted on a Web site supporting the president, "Like many, we do not always agree with our president, but we respect and applaud him for his tenacity, zeal, and willingness to stand up for the academy and freedom of thought at his own expense."

I'd like to think many others in the academy agree, but I wouldn't bet the college tuition on it.