As Harvard University turns

Posted: Jan 09, 2002 12:00 AM
Harvard, which looks down on the rest of America far more than the rest of America looks up to it, has taken a long-overdue beating in the last week. For those of you who don't know what I'm talking about, the new president of Harvard, former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, asked Cornel West, a professor-activist in the Afro-American Studies department at Harvard, to do a better job. Specifically, Summers thought it would be nice if West spent more time writing a serious academic book and grading papers (properly) and less recording pseudo-rap albums, going on speaking tours and advising Al Sharpton. In response, West, sorta-kinda screamed racism, or, more accurately, that he'd been "disrespected." The dispute has been for the national media in general, and for conservatives in particular, akin to an intellectual "Dawson's Creek." It's got everything: egos, financial shakedowns, liberals being eaten by leftists, and leftists calling liberals racist. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton even showed up on Harvard's campus, having detected the scent of television cameras and the spore of new headlines. Sharpton might even sue Summers because of the damage inflicted on his presidential campaign. West heads Sharpton's "presidential exploratory committee." One of the criticisms Summers has of West involves grade inflation. Apparently, West is a notoriously easy grader. Harvard, in general, is known for handing out A's the way Hare Krishnas give out flowers. Over half of all grades at Harvard are some form of A. Officially, until Summers arrived, Harvard defended the practice -- to the extent they admitted it exists -- by saying that their students were simply better than everyone else's and therefore deserved the A's. Summers sees things differently and considers grade inflation a scandal. So it was one of the issues Summers brought up with West in their conversation, according to reports. West felt that conversation to be part of an "attack" that "dishonored" and "insulted" him. The hype, surprise, surprise, even seems timed to coincide with West's new "spoken word" music CD (West insists it's not a rap album), "Sketches of My Culture." According to its promotional material, West says, "In all modesty, this project constitutes a watershed moment in musical history." I don't know about that, but after listening to West's rapping, I must commend him on one thing: The long-time advocate for racial pride and freedom has finally put to rest the pernicious stereotype that all black men have rhythm. Fareed Zakaria, writing in the Washington Post, summed up Summer's dilemma best. "Perhaps Summers was in Washington too long. In Washington, a politician's primary worry is of an attack from the far right. At universities, it's the opposite. The right barely exists. Harvard's conservative theorist, Harvey Mansfield, is about as significant on campus as the ultraliberal Paul Wellstone is in the Senate. On campus, the killer bees are all on the left." And the bees are swarming. West enlisted his colleagues in the Afro-America Studies department -- some of whom are legitimate intellectual heavyweights - in his battle against Summers. They're threatening to take their whole show to Princeton, where they'll shakedown the president for more money and whatever else they want. Indeed, there's reason to suspect that this was all a bit of a set-up. Almost immediately after Summers' conversation where he outrageously asked West to do his job, other members of the department started berating their president for not being a strong enough supporter of affirmative action. "It's absolutely critical," declared Charles Ogletree, a Harvard law professor and West's spokesman in this rumpus, "that the president make an unequivocal public statement in support of affirmative action." This is a bit like a pitcher getting called in by his coach because he's been walking too many batters and then his teammates immediately demanding that the coach clarify his support for the infield fly rule. What Summers' views on affirmative action have to do with this debate is something of a mystery. But it does illustrate why Summers will lose this fight -- if he hasn't lost it already. This week he issued a statement declaring his unequivocal support for affirmative action and apologized to West for any "misunderstanding." College presidents almost always have a terrible disadvantage when it comes to doing battle with their faculties. Tenured professors can't be fired, and college presidents actually have to get stuff accomplished. In the 1960s, college presidents wanted curriculum reform, and the faculties wanted to discuss Vietnam. Guess who won? Summers admirably wants to talk about grades and academic excellence, and he's getting fistfuls about racism and affirmative action. It's sad, of course. But it's also a great soap opera for the rest of us.