FOCUS: We Are Not Spineless

Harvard professors don’t scare easily. Though protected by life tenure and the prestige of an elite university, they are occasionally called to act at great risk to their sense of comfort. And rarely have they shown more courage, more disregard for personal convenience in the face of mortal danger, than in proposing a no-confidence motion in University President Lawrence H. Summers, to be voted on in an emergency meeting next week.

Through his controversial comments, including his recent statements on women in science, Summers has created a climate of fear and repression well befitting the “Kremlin on the Charles.” Several nameless professors spoke at Tuesday’s Faculty meeting of a “toxic atmosphere” in Cambridge. Professor of Sociology and Department Chair Mary C. Waters described tenured academics “held hostage to fear,” insisting that their dissenting e-mails be destroyed before being read by a University president powerless to fire them. Cruel punishments, no doubt, await Rabb Professor of Anthropology and Department Chair Arthur Kleinman, who swore openly to “show the public that we are not cowards, we are not spineless, and we are not with you.” Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology Theda Skocpol spoke darkly of “fear and manipulation,” and warned that faculty members have kept silent “in fear that they will be criticized publicly or lose their jobs.” (Heavens! The last time a Harvard professor suffered public criticism was in 1952, during the McCarthy era, and we all know how that turned out.)

A cynic might suppose that university professors are well protected from the public repercussions of their statements. Far better protected, say, than a university president, whose job security is far from assured, and whose decade-old memos from a previous job are still considered a worthwhile topic at Faculty meetings. (“We do not fear open give-and-take about anything you might have said,” Skocpol told Summers, while at the same time decrying the public criticism of professors—i.e., open give-and-take about something she might have said.)

Yet the holder of an endowed chair leads a tenuous life and must often take cover behind a shield of anonymity. The unknown professor who took Summers’ apologies to be disingenuous, the “senior faculty member” who speculated on his future—these endangered souls chose a safer path than their colleagues, who went on-the-record for The Crimson and will presumably be shot at sunrise.

Those of us who have already left campus are shocked to hear what Summers has done. We must have missed the news of academic sanctions levied against those who supported the visiting poet Tom Paulin. We have not read The Crimson’s repeated exposés of junior faculty denied tenure for their political speech. (Except, perhaps, for Peter Berkowitz.) Including the case of former Fletcher University Professor Cornel R. West ’74, we have not even seen public criticism by the President’s office of any member of the Faculty for political positions. In fact, the only person we’ve seen threatened with losing his job is Larry Summers.

As alumni, we have a right to be concerned. The University should, in the words of the University of Chicago’s Kalven Report, be a home of critics, rather than a critic itself. Perhaps, when a president speaks on politics—even off-the-record, and in a personal capacity—that barrier is crossed. Yet whether the subject is women in science, Afro-American studies, or Paulin, Summers’ comments have been subject to withering criticism from faculty and students alike. What intelligent person could read the papers and conclude that all of Harvard thinks as he does, or that its Faculty feels any pressure to agree? It is possible that Summers’ outspokenness has diminished his effectiveness in leading the University. But that, if true, says far more about Harvard than it does about Summers.

Many aspects of Summers’ tenure—his bull-in-a-china shop reputation, his handling of Allston or the Core or the appointment of deans, his brusque or ‘corporate’ style—deserve serious and searching discussion. Under his leadership, Harvard is making long-term changes to its curriculum and physical plant. If those decisions are being made poorly, or without appropriate consultation, the Faculty needs to speak up.

Summers deserves part of the blame for allowing his political comments to overshadow his academic commitments. But the Faculty will deserve even more if it wastes its energies in the same way. What Summers thinks about statistical variations in scientific ability is not as important as what he thinks about Allston or curricular reform, and these issues are lost amid the rancor. According to Wednesday’s Crimson, the two main docket items at Tuesday’s Faculty meeting—the progress of the Curricular Review, and a letter from the Dean of the Faculty setting out controversial new tenure procedures—“went unaddressed.”

Were it to stick to safe, easy topics, the Faculty might find time to discuss these issues at next week’s emergency meeting. But what requires bravery, real bravery, is to place anonymous quotations in student newspapers, to focus attention on illusory repression, and to shortcut discussion by calling for a motion of no confidence.

We are not spineless, after all.

Stephen E. Sachs ’02 was editorial chair of The Crimson in 2001.