When he took office in 2001, Summers seemed like an ideal president of Harvard. He had had a distinguished career in and out of the academic world, including having been a professor at Harvard, so there was no obvious reason why he would not fit in.
His fatal flaws were honesty and a desire to do the right thing. That has ruined more than one academic career.
Dr. Summers' problems started early on. He called in Cornel West for a private discussion of West's scholarly activities -- or rather, Professor West's lack of scholarly activities.
It was not that Cornel West was inactive. He was active as a great showman on television, he was active in politics, he was active on the lucrative lecture circuit, and he was even active in entertainment, writing and performing rap music. He was also popular with students, as any professor who gives out lots of A's is likely to be.
The kind of activity that Lawrence Summers wanted to see from West was the kind of activity expected from full professors at a leading university -- scholarly research and writing. Cornel West wrote lots of things in lots of places but even an editor of the liberal New Republic characterized West's books as "almost completely worthless."
Although the discussion between Summers and West was private, Cornel West himself made it a public issue -- and a public scandal. West and his supporters made this a racial issue. That made facts and logic irrelevant.
That should tell us all we need to know about Harvard and about academia in general. Neither truth nor standards matter when it comes to one of the ideological raw nerves like race.
Lawrence Summers touched another ideological raw nerve last year, when discussing why there were not more tenured women professors in science. Since he was addressing a scholarly symposium, Summers cited hypotheses and data that might explain the under-representation of women at the top in science.
Summers advanced what he called "the high-powered job hypothesis." Mothers have a hard time reaching the top in jobs where people work long hours and put everything else aside when the job requires it.
He cited another well-known and unchallenged fact. Although women and men have similar average IQs, men are over-represented at both the lowest and the highest IQ levels. Men outnumber women among both idiots and geniuses.
Since top scientists are drawn disproportionately from people at the highest levels, that is another possible factor in differences between women and men in high-end science.