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The Situation on the Charles

charles.jpgNote: This is a two-part post, this being the first. Regular readers may take interest in this first half. I ask readers from the Dartmouth community to read the whole.

In recent weeks I have abdicated one of my usual topics, which is Dartmouth politics. The reason behind it, I confess in simplicity and honesty, is that I have been flummoxed and hoodwinked by the distinctly Rovian antics of the people currently at the head of alumni affairs. (Though the modifier currently is hardly necessary, for they are a sticking bunch.) And I similarly have failed to comment to any serious degree on the Larry Summers situation in the fair southerly city of Cambridge, a topic where veritas is especially lacking in the popular analyses. I have failed in that regard simply because, when rumors of Mr. Summers’ resignation came to my ears several days ago, I knew that in discussing it I would not be able to avoid discussing Dartmouth politics, and the roadblock there was at the time sufficient to prevent any content at all from escaping onto this page.

But as so often there are in the strange doings of elite academia, common threads bind the two circumstances. It would be very easy—and, I think, accurate—to remark on the political and ideological parallels, but that is hardly appropriate now. There is a broader similarity across Larry Summers’ undue ouster and the train wreck that is alumni governance at Dartmouth, and that similarity is the constant problem of small activist contingents steeling necessarily open-minded and changeable institutions against change, in violation of what we could debate are fundamental rights but far more importantly in violation of regular decency.

In the case of Larry Summers, mainstream media reporters have by and large been unable to report on his resignation without mentioning his ‘idea’ that fifty/fifty sexual equality in the world’s science laboratories may not be the natural way of things. In the aftermath he was generally misquoted as having said, “You stupid broads!” But those who spent a few moments reading over the transcript quickly understood that his remarks were nothing so outrageous and instead were meant to nudge his employees toward spending their time actually furthering the science instead of brute-forcing the sexual makeup of the science world to fit some contemplation of absolute equality in the labor market of same. It was hardly worth getting upset over, and Harvard’s faculty would have done well to listen to him; if they are at all familiar with the balance of admissions decisions, they’d know that no vile conspiracy to keep laboratories at a maximum hair length exists.

Instead, the rhetorical battle became national news, and so the faculty was emboldened. Fuel to the alleged conflagration that was his tenure included his refusal to rubber-stamp friendly faculty appointees and his suggestion that Professor Cornel West spend less of his salaried time on personal performance art and more on working. His support for military recruiters after September 11 provided only another rallying post. All of this led to an absurdly reactionary inquisition from Harvard’s faculty. Except a curious fact fell by the wayside in the waylaying that followed: It wasn’t so much Harvard’s scientists who were assailing their racist, misogynist, xenophobic, neoconservative, right-wing president who by the way was a Bill Clinton hire. Nor were Harvard’s legal academics or business professionals involved in the crusade. The medical experts largely stayed out, and the Harvard Corporation found fit to explicitly support Larry Summers. No, it was the Faculty of Arts and Sciences which turned ‘round to face Mr. Summers on a lonely battlefield. This was fine, because they only needed to destroy one man, and they did. But what does it say when a university president deeply committed to reform, broadly supported by the studentry, a possessor even early in his tenure of tangible results, and an admired man among great swaths of faculty can be muddied and vilified and ousted in disgrace by a single, small, entrenched, and relatively unproductive set of political activists-cum-professors who, in severe “intellectual dishonesty” accuse the university president of being an anti-intellectual?

What, in other words, would it say when a corporation’s marketing department can depose the Chief Executive Officer in spite of the strong support he finds among Information Technology, Accounting, Human Resources, Legal, Sales, the Board of Directors, and the mightily positive opinion customers have of him? It says that marketing has too much sway for the health of the company. It says that, on an even field of competition, the CEO would have remained, and that would have been the best path for the company, because marketing, its delusions notwithstanding, knows no better than any other division. Or, put another way, the opinion of each employee and each customer counts equally. Yet, in the case of the university on the Charles, a boisterous bit won out. Larry Summers is gone, and Harvard by general consensus is worse for it. Consider a Boston Globe article of today, “Women, scientists on wish lists for Harvard.” Reporter Michael Levenson sojourned to the Yard and asked professors what Summers’ replacement should look like.

There was near unanimity that the next leader must have more political acumen and ease with outsized egos than Summers did, and a better understanding of the megaphone effect that makes everything the Harvard president says and does reverberate far beyond Cambridge. The Byzantine politics of the job encompass everything from international issues to inter-departmental tiffs.
That is the chilling effect codified. In a time when change and reform is required of Harvard, its faculty is seeking stability, sameness, homogeneity, pliancy, and all at the breathless behest of an activist minority.

Thankfully the situation at Dartmouth is not so dire, but a circumstantially similar situation has been brewed there. The discussion continues in this post.


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