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In a last-minute addition to the schedule, University President Lawrence H. Summers exhorted attendees of a historic Civil Rights Project (CRP) conference on segregation to “categorically reject complacency” last Monday.
Speaking to an audience of over 100 as they ate lunch in a tent erected on Holmes Field at the Law School for the four-day Color Lines Conference, Summers said that the academic research presented that weekend was of critical importance to real-world progress, even if it might seem to be “esoteric,” “abstract” or “theoretical arcana” to outsiders.
“The basic principle and credo on which a great research university stands is the idea that the world can be better and better understood, and as a consequence of that better understanding it can become a better place,” he said.
Summers cited challenges in achieving racial equity in higher education and society at large, but said he thought important progress had been made on both fronts. He particularly lauded the Supreme Court’s recent decision to uphold affirmative action at the University of Michigan. Harvard and six other top universities submitted a friend-of-the-court brief supporting Michigan’s consideration of race in admissions decisions.
“It is what we know and what we think that ultimately makes the difference,” he said.
When Summers stepped to the podium, he was greeted with polite applause, which continued through his comments and a subsequent question-and-answer session.
Two nights earlier, though, some conference attendees hissed as they were told that Summers would speak at Monday’s lunch—an apparent reflection of his sometimes-rocky relationship with campus minority groups in the wake of his spat with former Afro-American studies professor Cornel R. West ’74.
The specter of that conflict rose again in the questions audience members, growing combative at times, posed after the speech. After a brief pause in which no one approached the microphone at the back of the tent, participants asked Summers about topics including socioeconomic inequalities in Harvard’s undergraduate population and whether he would vigorously support affirmative action.
“Anybody got any other questions?” Summers joked, eliciting laughs, before going on to answer a question about the now-infamous 1991 World Bank memo he signed which argued that third-world countries should be more heavily polluted.
In response to another question, Summers gave a spirited defense of the admissions policy which lends an advantage to relatives of Harvard alums. He argued that while legacy admissions might be superficially unfair, in fact they lead to more generous donations which in turn allow Harvard to offer a model financial aid program.
Midway through the question-and-answer session, one participant said with a smile that Summers was performing better than he had expected.
“You’re doing pretty well so far,” he told the president. “I’m happy to say the legend of Larry Summers is not quite matching up to what we’re hearing today.”
Conference organizers said afterwards that they felt Summers responded admirably to a predictably mixed reception.
“I think he surprised everyone there about how strongly he felt” about affirmative action, CRP Co-Director Gary A. Orfield said.
Andrew P. Grant-Thomas, the conference’s director, said the sharp nature of some questions could not have come as a surprise to Summers.
“He must have known coming that in the wake of the whole difficulties [involving West], that if he came and opened it up he was going to be challenged,” Grant-Thomas said.
Orfield said the awareness of potential tension had not lessened the CRP’s eagerness to include Summers in the conference—which he said was the result of a late request from the president’s office.
“Of course we were happy to have him even though he’s been involved in controversy on these issues,” Orfield said. “The conference is wide open to anyone,” he added.
—Elisabeth S. Theodore contributed to the reporting of this story.
—Staff writer Simon W. Vozick-Levinson can be reached at email@example.com.
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