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."