Matory, author of lack of confidence motion, stays vocal in criticizing Summers
Matory this semester emerged as one of University President Lawrence H. Summers’ most outspoken critics, filing the motion that led to the successful vote of no confidence in the president and becoming one of only three Harvard professors to call publicly for Summers’ resignation.
At heart, however, Matory is not a politician but a social anthropologist, couching his criticism of Summers in academic terms. Summers, Matory says, is trying to hijack Harvard and make it conform to personal beliefs that stress biological determinism.
Matory lists several of Summers’ controversial actions—ranging from the president’s public spat with Cornel R. West ’74 to his infamous January comments on women in science—as examples of Summers’ “social Darwinist” tendencies.
“I do not think that this person has demonstrated the breadth of social awareness, the scholarly awareness, the capacity to consult and lead that is required of the president of what is certainly one of the leading universities in the world,” Matory says.
Matory is 43 years old. Wearing a dark suit, a neon-blue backpack, and a bicycle helmet, he arrives in his spacious William James Hall office eager to share his collection of Afro-Atlantic sacred art.
The dolls, flags, and other artifacts filling Matory’s shelves represent some of the religions of Latin American and African peoples that the professor has spent his career studying.
In his first book, “Sex and the Empire That Is No More: Gender and the Politics of Metaphor in Oyo Yoruba Religion,” Matory posits ideas that challenge many of the popularly-held Western conceptions of gender. For instance, he shows that the Yoruba women of southwest Nigeria are simultaneously wives and husbands.
It was in Nigeria where Matory met his current wife, Bunmi Fatoye-Matory, with whom he has two children.
This year, Fatoye-Matory says, has been “a little hard” for the family. Her mother passed away in February and Matory’s sister died last month, all while Matory was becoming a central figure in one of the most public crises in Harvard’s history.
AN UNAPOLOGETIC CRITIC
More than 400 Harvard faculty members sat in dead silence as Matory stepped up to a microphone in the aisle between the Loeb Drama Center’s packed orchestra and gallery seats at the March 15 Faculty meeting.
“I hereby move that the Faculty vote, by secret ballot, on the following resolution,” Matory read in a deep, steady, and resolute voice while facing the University president and almost 500 colleagues, “The Faculty lacks confidence in the leadership of Lawrence H. Summers.”
Matory’s motion, which passed with 218 affirmative votes from the Faculty, became the climax of the crisis of confidence in the University’s leadership that dramatically unfolded this semester.
Matory was also one of the eight professors to speak against Summers at the Feb. 15 Faculty meeting, the first after the president made his remarks on women in science.
Matory passed out copies of that speech, which condemns Summers for “political selectiveness” in supporting free academic inquiry, to his Anthropology 1600, “Introduction to Social Anthropology” class. The professor says he showed students the speech in order to let them analyze the controversy surrounding Summers’ leadership in social anthropological terms.
In so doing, students say, Matory made his low opinion of Summers clear by drawing connections to his own scholarly views.
“I think he was coming from a very academic viewpoint” in criticizing Summers, says Shannon M. Kelly ’07, who took Matory’s course. “I think in general [Matory’s] views on social determinism are pretty cemented and he was pretty unforgiving to hypotheses that would put anything on biology rather than social arrangements.”
The crusade that Matory has undertaken against Summers has drawn mixed feelings from the faculty. While many praise him for voicing criticism openly and publicly—and hundreds voted for his no-confidence motion—some faculty feel that Matory walks a fine line between constructive and destructive criticism.
“It’s very courageous of Matory to be so outspoken, and it was good that he proposed the lack of confidence vote,” Judith Ryan, who chairs the Germanic Languages and Literatures Department, writes in an e-mail. “Still, I think he needs to be careful not to turn some people off by pushing too hard.”
But Matory stands firm in his opposition to the president. Referring to Summers’ recently-announced initiative to expand diversity on the faculty, Matory says, “I am not happy with the strategy that laying $50 million on the line should buy our silence.”
FROM HARVARD TO HARVARD
Matory began to cultivate his anthropological views early on at Harvard, when he studied social anthropology as an undergraduate, writing a thesis comparing the social structure of certain Yoruba worshippers in Nigeria and Brazil.
Matory had a brief stint at The Crimson and wrote two stories as a staff writer, including one headlined, perhaps portentously, “Bowdoin President Quits After Battle Against Trustees.” He sang for Kuumba and participated in the South Africa divestment movement and a feminists discussion group.
In 1981, when he was a junior, Matory faced rape allegations from a Wellesley sophomore, which he has always denied.
A Massachusetts criminal court tried and acquitted Matory that fall. He describes the trial as a “horrible experience,” but he notes it also helped establish his unapologetic and uncompromising demeanor.
“The year of that trial I got straight A’s,” he says. “If I believe in some things or I believe in myself, I do not give up easily. It’s very difficult for me to compromise when it comes to truth or fairness.”
—Staff writer Anton S. Troianovski can be reached at email@example.com.