February 24, 2005
Mob Rule in Academia

By Deb Saunders

Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers apologized yet again at a meeting with Harvard professors Tuesday for remarks he made some five weeks ago about the lack of substantial "presence of women in high-end scientific professions."

I can't believe I am even writing this column. The furor should have died down weeks ago, but thanks to a fiercely intolerant streak in most Harvard professors (who were emboldened by Summers' propensity to self-immolate), the controversy lives on as a mob of angry academics tries to run Summers out of Cambridge.

Where did Summers err? To start with, he concentrated on the wrong gender. If, for example, Summers had said that men are less likely to play the role of primary caregiver in the home, say, because men tend to be less nurturing than women, academia would have applauded his insight. There would be no charges of sexism, as sexism against men is no problem in the Ivy League.

Summers' next mistake was to be male. In his infamous speech to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Summers noted that women often don't want to work the hours needed to get to the top and that girls are "socialized toward nursing" while boys are "socialized toward building bridges."

The quote that killed him: "In the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude, and that those considerations are reinforced by what are, in fact, lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination."

Women say -- or imply -- the same thing all the time. They demand work schedules that are friendly to mothers. They observe that women excel in social and verbal arenas -- and that's no biggie. But when a man says about women what women say about women, it can be career-ending offense.

Summers' third mistake was that he did not treat women badly. Take Summer's' old boss, Bill Clinton, who was able to date while married, as his top female staffers (who considered themselves feminists) strove to protect him from nubile workers.

In this politically correct era, words speak louder than actions: You can act like a sexist cad, but you can't talk as if you think a sexist cad conceivably might have a point.

Summers' fourth mistake was that he was reasonable. Before his remarks on women in science, Summers noted that he might be wrong and that he didn't think it was right that there were differences in gender socialization.

If Summers sounded like a deranged, uneducated misanthrope, however, Harvard Yard would be filled with protesters citing the need for -- all bow -- "academic freedom." As it is, rare voices, such as that of law professor Alan Dershowitz, have invoked academic freedom in Summers' defense. But Dershowitz's take is by no means universal. A Harvard Crimson poll of the university's Arts and Letters faculty found that a disgraceful 32 percent of respondents said Summers should resign, while 55 percent said he should not.

Meanwhile, the "academic freedom" lobby has mobilized in support of University of Colorado, Boulder, ethnic studies professor Ward Churchill, who wrote a piece that called the Sept. 11 victims "little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the Twin Towers." Churchill later tried to excuse the piece by explaining that he was targeting "people who function in investment and brokerage and trading capacity" because their activities lead to mass misery and death in the Third World.

Apparently, you don't have to be even remotely academic to hide behind academic freedom.

Or could it be that academic freedom only works for those on the left or the far left? Summers already had won ill will among Harvard's left for opposing university divestment from Israel, for questioning the academic performance of African American professor Cornel West (who split for Princeton) and for supporting a return of the ROTC on campus.

Academic freedom for members of the military? -- I guess that would be taking academic freedom too far. After all, it would be wrong for academia to treat reserve officers -- the men and women who protect this country -- as equals. No, the ivory tower is too special for that.

Then, after banning the ROTC, Harvard profs whined that Summers is "dismissive and arrogant" -- as one professor told the Boston Herald. Dismissive and arrogant? If anything, Summers is too accommodating. He keeps apologizing and promising to be more sensitive and a better listener when he ought to be blasting his critics for their intolerant rush to exile people who express unpopular ideas.

My advice to the Harvard president: Don't apologize and promise to be a better listener. Be a man.

Copyright 2005 Creators Syndicate

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Debra J. Saunders
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