SUMMERS’S TROUBLES began shortly after he assumed his office. Acting far more like a modern CEO than a modern university president, Summers tried to run Harvard as a hands-on manager. This is the opposite tack taken by most university presidents, who are content to be their school’s fundraiser-in-chief and public figurehead.
Instead, Summers declared that the Harvard faculty should be more involved with undergrads. He challenged the scholarship of some of his tenured faculty members, making a particular cause of celebrity professor Cornel West’s sometimes untraditional pursuits. These attempts to supervise the faculty were often met with reactions ranging from disdain to hostility.
And then there were Summers’s political stands. Summers belittled a campaign that urged divestment in Israel. Later, in the wake of 9/11, he urged that the university’s denizens be more patriotic. He was edging closer and closer to the unforgivable.
SO SUMMERS already had a sizeable group of enemies by the time he stood before an academic conference and mused that a contributing factor to the under-representation of women in the hard sciences might perhaps be due to different intrinsic abilities between the sexes. The furor that followed wasn’t really caused by these comments. As even his fiercest critics conceded at the time, it was merely “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” The net result of that controversy was the faculty narrowly passing a no-confidence referendum on Summers’s leadership. That was almost a year ago.
Summers waged a contrition campaign which lasted for almost a year. He repeatedly apologized for his comments and avoided any of the blunt utterances that had previously characterized his tenure.
That last bit is why I can’t feel too bad for him; he capitulated to the Political Correctness Bullies to try to save his job, not realizing that people like that are never satisfied, that their status as permanent victims is vital to their self-image (and even scholarship, when you look at programs like Women’s Studies and Ethnic Studies). Identity politics has won a great victory. Academia has lost. I hope MIT’s Nancy Hopkins feels much better now, and that she’s in no further danger of blacking out or throwing up or otherwise getting the vapors.
(Thanks to Jeff G. for the pointer, where there’s a lot more commentary worth reading.)