Summers at Tufts

At Tufts, blissful ignorance and uninformed stereotypes trump education

A controversial speaker accused of furthering malicious ideas is coming to campus, and students and faculty have vowed to protest and boycott the speech. Others on campus preach the need for tolerance of speakers who put forward opposing viewpoints regardless of their extremity. Meanwhile, the administration plans to go forward with the speech as planned.

Alhough this may sound like a description of former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami’s address at Harvard last September, it actually applies to the reception that former University President Lawrence H. Summers will likely receive tonight just up the road at Tufts University.

When Summers’ appearance at Tufts was announced, professors and students cried foul, pointing to his infamous comments on women in science as evidence that he is sexist. One professor went so far as to write a letter to Tufts President Lawrence S. Bacow saying that he should not invite “people who have contributed in one way or another to making racist and sexist attitudes more mainstream” to speak on campus.

Much of the harsh reaction may be due to the fact that a recent Tufts speaker, affirmative action critic Shelby Steele, offended many with language some deemed to be racially insensitive. Nevertheless, the dismissive attitude that these students and academics have taken towards free speech is appalling; it utterly undermines the marketplace of ideas that forms the bedrock of any self-respecting university.

There is no better environment for debate and development than one that constantly challenges the beliefs of its members. To invite only those lecturers whose opinions are inoffensive is to deprive students and faculty of opportunities to learn about the disparate worldviews of others, even those that might seem distasteful. The boycott at Tufts represents an acute case of intellectual insularity.

For his part, Bacow has responded admirably, observing that “Tufts would be a very dull place if we shied away from inviting controversial speakers.” Worse, it would not be a university but a factory, producing scores of unchallenged, uninformed graduates.

The sole criteria for inviting a speaker should be the contribution they can make to an intellectual community. By this measure, Summers—a renowned economist, former Secretary of the Treasury, and former president of Harvard—is eminently qualified, regardless of what one thinks of his personal beliefs. This is particularly true given that Summers will be speaking on reforming undergraduate education, a subject to which he has given much thought.

The reception that will likely greet Summers this evening is also unfortunate because it is emblematic of the distorted caricature that many have of our former president. No doubt, Summers’ speech on women in science was a gaffe, in that a somewhat nuanced point came off the wrong way. It should be recognized as such, and not as the defining moment of his five years as president.

But regardless of one’s opinion of his tenure, it is clear that Summers deserves better than to be shouted down at Medford by misinformed critics. We hope that Summers’ speech tonight will show his critics just how off base they are.


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