Harvard is famous for its ghosts, the spirits of the great men who lectured and studied there over the centuries since its founding in 1636. On a quiet night some students swear you can hear voices from the past in Harvard Yard, echoes of the voices of John Hancock, John Adams, William James, Henry Adams, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. If ghosts could cry, you might hear the manly sobs of the ghosts of grown men.
Those men of Harvard's championship seasons wouldn't have recognized the place last week when Larry Summers threw in the towel, resigning as the president of the university. They could not understand how he lost a fight with the faculty of Arts and Sciences. His jaunty spirit was on display when he came out to talk to spectators, reporters and cameramen after he announced his resignation. He jumped over a hedge and in his enthusiasm knocked over a photographer. He was cheered by the chants of students demanding "Stay, Larry, stay." A little clumsy, sometimes even heavy-handed in his rush to improve things, he was always energetic in his determination to make Harvard over into what it once was.
The students don't want him to leave. In a poll by the Crimson, the student daily, Harvard undergraduates lamented his resignation by 3 to 1. "Whatever satisfaction was today enjoyed by the elements of unrest in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), it is unrepresentative of the sobering sense of emptiness that now pervades Cambridge's streets," said the Crimson editorial. "Harvard's loss is real."
The students credited Yale, their arch rival, for getting it right when Yale president Richard Levin remarked, "I'm sorry for him, and I'm sorry for Harvard." Well he might be. The Summers resignation testifies to the tyranny of a politically correct minority of simpletons who nitpicked him to death. His resignation is a triumph of the worst on the liberal campus. Only in the burnt-out grove of academe could Larry Summers, Bill Clinton's treasury secretary, be thought a right-wing zealot.
Fall fell fast on the last of Summers' day at Harvard for many reasons. He had scolded Cornel West, a popular professor of African American studies, for inflating students' grades and told him to spend more time teaching than on his rap-music business. The professor naturally cried "racism," and packed off for Princeton warning that Harvard was "messing with the wrong black man." When 69 Harvard professors signed a petition demanding that the university divest itself of investments in Israel, Mr. Summers said no, the idea was anti-Semitism in "effect" if not "intent." He challenged the bigots on campus to recognize instead authentic human rights abuses in China, Rwanda and several Muslim countries.
But his greatest offense to the shuttered minds in the faculty lounges was to suggest an honest quest for the reasons why women gravitate to the soft stuff in the humanities and avoid hard science and engineering. He looked at the bell curve of statistics and suggested that a look at genetics might explain why there were fewer women at the top and at the bottom in math. "I would far prefer to believe something else, because it would be easier to address what is surely a serious social problem if something else were true."
For his recognition of reality and concern for how to fix it, radical feminists called him "sexist," and suddenly Larry Summers was Don Quixote charging against windmills. He couldn't win and he capitulated. He apologized often and profusely and promised to spend $50 million to increase the numbers of women in the hard-science faculties. He should have known this would only encourage the mob. Don Quixote was dreaming the impossible dream.
He was Big Man on Campus for a time, but not big enough to vanquish the Lilliputians guarding their miserable little nests of selfish indifference. He wanted a university of open inquiry with a diversity of ideas, a search for true learning. He wanted to bring ROTC back to the campus, to honor the military. He would reform the undergraduate curriculum stagnating in a swamp of sour indifference to true learning. This is the last thing Lilliputians tolerate.
In a guidebook to college etiquette, the Harvard student who expects to be admired for merely being a Harvard man (or woman) is warned to wait at least 120 seconds before telling a stranger about it. He's well advised today to wait a little longer. I once described Larry Summers as the Rodney Dangerfield of academe: "He don't get no respect." But that's only in the faculty lounge. He's free now to rejoin the real world, where respect for learning and accomplishment is a given. The ghosts of Harvard Yard can only wish him godspeed.