Lawrence H. Summers is not a noted figure from the political right. In fact, he served as a cabinet member under President Clinton. But he has been the recipient of a barrage of politically correct attacks over recent years. Since 2001 Summers has served as the much maligned president of Harvard University and has been under great fire for some months now. Summers finally resigned yesterday, effective June 30, 2006. Sadly, his story represents a great deal of the problem in much higher education in our day.

In his resignation letter Summers said to the board of Harvard:

I have notified the Harvard Corporation that I will resign as President of the University as of June 30, 2006. Working closely with all parts of the Harvard community, and especially with our remarkable students, has been one of the great joys of my professional life. However, I have reluctantly concluded that the rifts between me and segments of the Arts and Sciences faculty make it infeasible for me to advance the agenda of renewal that I see as crucial to Harvard’s future. I believe, therefore, that it is best for the University to have new leadership.

Summers provides some insight into the problems at America’s premier university by noting in his resignation letter the following problems:

At a time when the median age of our tenured professoriate is approaching 60, the renewal of the faculty has to be a central concern. A number of faculties, notably the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, have seen their most rapid growth in over a generation in the last several years. As the Harvard faculty is renewed, I believe it essential that the University do much better than it has done traditionally to ensure that we are doing everything we can to attract, develop, and retain the most promising emerging scholars who will define the future of their disciplines.

And he correctly concludes that:

We cannot maintain pre-eminence in intellectual fields if we remain constrained by artificial boundaries of departments and Schools. "Each Tub On Its Own Bottom" is a vivid, but limiting, metaphor for decision making at Harvard. We will not escape its limits unless our Schools and Faculties increase their willingness to transcend parochial interests in support of broader university goals.

It is a fact. Some of America’s most prestigious universities are still in the final throes of 1960s radicalism. When this generation of tenured faculty is gone thing may improve. We can hope so. In Harvard’s case it took a Lawrence Summers, with courage and real grit, to show the way. Now we can hope the door he has opened will not be closed. A more diverse and strong Harvard is good for the country and for higher education. I wish Summer’s successor real success but fear the board might move away from his genuinely progressive, renewal oriented, leadership style.

This entire story reminds me of just how far apart modern political and social liberalism is from genuine progressivism, which schools like Harvard desperately need to be strong again. The former approach of the left is a still-born social fruit of the 1960s. We can do without it. The later is much needed to balance and strengthen our educational institutions.

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  1. Scott Paeth March 6, 2006 at 4:23 pm

    An interesting blog. I appreciate your point of view, but I think you miss the mark vis-a-vis Harvard.
    While it’s certainly appropriate to note the heat that Summers took over the Cornel West and “Women may be naturally bad at math” controversies (neither of which, by the way, are necessarily “PC”; saying so allows you to dismiss them without taking account of their possible validity), the bigger problem seems to be rooted not in Harvard’s “60’s radicalism” as you put it, but in its innate institutional conservatism!
    As you quote, Summers was concerned about the entrenched interests of the school of Liberal Arts and Sciences and its seeming intransigence and unwillingness to change. (Whether he was right or wrong on this is a matter of debate). The final straw was the manner in which he removed the Dean LA&S, which caused a firestorm among the faculty.
    It was never really much about his politics. It was about his unilateralism and his bull-in-a-Chinashop attitude. It may be convenient to lay this at the feet of liberals, but it doesn’t seem to take account of all the factors at play in Academic political life.

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