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University President Lawrence H. Summers earned a standing ovation in a speech to black alumni Saturday, suggesting that he has made significant strides in his climb back into the good graces of Harvard’s African-American community.
Speaking in a packed Science Center lecture hall as part of Harvard’s third-ever Black Alumni Weekend, Summers said he thought the event represented a move towards a reversal of the “manifest sense of exclusion” experienced by black Harvard students in the past.
“This is your university,” he told the Science Center assembly. “We are a far better university for the presence of everyone in this room.”
Summers ignited a firestorm of criticism in 2001 when he allegedly questioned the commitment of then-professor Cornel R. West ’74 to teaching and scholarship. West and his colleague K. Anthony Appiah—both seen as crown jewels in Harvard’s Department of Afro-American Studies—left for Princeton, and Summers was accused of leading a once strong department into very public disarray.
Since then, however, Summers has worked to convince department chair Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. to stay in Cambridge and poured financial and administrative support into the department, now renamed the Department of African and African-American Studies.
Indeed, several speakers Saturday praised Summers for his decision last year to approve an African studies program and other department expansions.
“Larry Summers has not only shown a willingness and propensity to challenge and question and provoke, he’s also shown a commitment to support,” said Alphonse Fletcher Jr. ’87, a major donor to the department who introduced Summers.
“They have slowly added new enterprise and new capacity to a [department] many thought already at its pinnacle,” Fletcher said.
But Fletcher noted that his view of Harvard’s president has changed from his first impression. When he spoke with Summers after the departure of West—who held a University professorship in Fletcher’s name—the donor said he asked for his money back.
Gates too said Summers has been generous in supporting the department. “Every time I showed up in Mass. Hall with a proposal, after a rigorous and rigid back and forth, every time, President Summers has been right there with our department,” Gates, who is currently on leave at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, told the assembly. “I have full confidence in President Summers, and not only that, I happen to like him.”
Last April, Gates said the administration’s support of the new African studies program had been a “key factor” in his decision to stay at Harvard.
For his part, Summers joked that his experience as Treasury secretary and World Bank chief economist “was just the most partial preparation for attempting to negotiate with Skip Gates.”
In his speech, Summers touched on the four major themes that have been the mainstays of his addresses to alums and students—progress in the life sciences, the development of a campus in Allston, financial aid for graduate students and the revamping of the undergraduate curriculum.
But he spent the bulk of his speech discussing the undergraduate experience and the priorities and problems that educators will face over the next century.
Speaking without notes, he said that Harvard’s ability to remain the leading American university over the last century was quite remarkable because it bucked what he called the “ubiquitous phenomenon” of “regression to the mean.”
He referred briefly to Harvard’s ongoing curricular review—which Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71 discussed in greater length in an earlier speech.
Summers said he was pleased that the Supreme Court’s recent decision permitting affirmative action would allow the College to ensure that future entering classes “are diverse and excellent and excellent because they’re diverse.”
Summers’ perceived ambivalence on affirmative action has been a concern of many in Harvard’s black community. Last year, however, the University sent a brief supporting the practice to the Supreme Court. And Summers co-authored an Op-ed in The New York Times defending the use of diversity in admissions decisions.
But echoing comments he made to a conference on “Color Lines” at the Law School in September, Summers warned Saturday that affirmative action must not be viewed as a panacea that will solve the achievement gap.
Summers said he thought that the performance of America’s public schools would be more important than affirmative action policies in determining “whether the problem of race is a problem in the 22nd century.”
He pledged that Harvard would increase efforts to locate and attract students from less privileged backgrounds and from high schools that have not typically been Harvard feeders.
Summers cited his visit last year to Hialeah High School in Florida, a public school where most students speak Spanish at home, which has sent several students to Harvard over the last two years.
“We were making a difference,” Summers said. “We can do much more of that to help all people of disadvantaged backgrounds in the years ahead.”
He added that it was important to subject educational policy to rigorous oversight, particularly because of the changing backgrounds of American school-children, a theme he echoed in a speech on Friday (Please see story, page A-10).
Harvard’s undergraduate curricular review, for example, should recognize that Western civilization is only one of many worthy of study, Summers said, drawing applause from the crowd.
Before Summers’ speech, Acting Chair of the African and African American Studies Department Lawrence D. Bobo described Harvard’s increased offerings on African civilization and other expansions, noting that the department now offers six African languages and will soon offer an Africa concentration track.
Bobo said outsiders’ lingering perceptions of a department plagued by damaging departures and public conflicts with Summers are “completely wrong.”
He noted that last year the department added three new faculty members, including noted scholars Evelynn M. Hammonds and Michael Dawson, and had held the “most ambitious” lecture series in its history.
—Staff writer Elisabeth S. Theodore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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