Another academic casualty

Posted: Feb 23, 2006 12:05 AM
The resignation of Lawrence Summers as president of Harvard University tells us a lot about what is wrong with academia today.

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.

Summers apologized.

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.

Summers also cited other factors, including socialization and discrimination but this did not prevent another ideological firestorm from erupting. Summers was simply demonized and the faculty turned against him.

The only politically correct explanation is discrimination.

Summer apologized -- again. But, in the end, these hasty retreats did not save his job.

Despite incessant repetition of the word "diversity" in academe, the tragic fact is that the academic world is one of the most intolerant places in America when it comes to diversity of ideas. Even the president of Harvard dare not step out of line.

Parents pay the kind of money on which whole families could live, in order to have their children "educated" at elite academic institutions, hearing only one side of a whole range of issues -- race and sex being just two.

Even if every conclusion with which students are indoctrinated were true, unless those students develop their own ability to weigh opposing arguments, these conclusions will become obsolete as new issues arise in the years ahead. These "educated" people will have developed no ability to analyze opposing sides of issues.

Students are getting half an education at inflated prices and learning only how to label, dismiss and demonize ideas that differ from what they have been led to believe. Their "educated" ignorance is a danger to the future of this country.