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Former University President Lawrence H. Summers decried a “creeping totalitarianism” on college campuses, calling out what he said is the growing preference for emotional comfort over academic inquiry in an interview with conservative political pundit William Kristol ’73.
Summers, who is a University Professor, discussed recent campus discourse and protests about race at colleges across the country during the 75-minute interview, criticizing “excesses” of political correctness on the part of students and administrators. In particular, he condemned controversial placemats that the Office for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion introduced in Harvard dining halls last semester. Quickly denounced by a host of students and administrators as a breach from principles of academic freedom, the placemats purported to offer advice on holiday conversation with family members about race and inclusion.
“There is a great deal of absurd political correctness. Now, I’m somebody who believes very strongly in diversity, who resists racism in all of its many incarnations, who thinks that there is a great deal that’s unjust in American society that needs to be combated,” Summers said. “But it seems to be that there is a kind of creeping totalitarianism in terms of what kind of ideas are acceptable and are debatable on college campuses.”
Students at colleges across the country have in recent months protested for better treatment of minorities on their campuses. Last semester, Harvard saw a flurry of activism and protest from students across its schools. House masters at the College unanimously agreed in December to change their title, citing concerns about the racial implications of the term “Master.” And at the Law School, students have called for a series of changes, including removing the school’s seal, which they criticize for its ties to a slaveholding family.
At both Yale and Princeton, students have demanded to change the name of some buildings and schools because of namesakes' historical origins and associations with slavery and alleged racism.
“I admire much more student protests about major moral issues like the Vietnam War, South African apartheid or global climate change, than protests coming from discomfort about the use of historical names,” Summers said in an interview with The Crimson on Wednesday.
With this campus backdrop, Summers said he was worried the primary mission of the university—to seek truth and foster debate—may be imperiled by a preference for comfort and harmony on college campuses.
“You have to recognize that social norms are, can be a good thing. And at the same time, shutting down debate can be a bad thing,” Summers told Kristol. For Summers, opposition to teaching rape law at Harvard Law School because of its sensitive nature is not consistent with free academic inquiry.
He chastised college administrators for not more boldly defending academic values.
“I think the weakness of — the weakness of administrators who have often had as their dominant instinct to placate rather than to educate has emboldened those who see their moment to establish a kind of orthodoxy,” Summers said. “I think it is the responsibility, and a responsibility that’s not being fully met, of academic leaders to address these issues,” he later added.
Kristol and Summers also discussed Summers’s tenure as the President of Harvard, including Summers’ efforts to reestablish a relationship between the University and the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program.
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