"How times have changed...it will be interesting to see how we all get along."

Submitted by Norm Roulet on Tue, 03/01/2005 - 00:14.

There is an absolutely fascinating editorial in the 02/28/05 NYTimes about the President of Harvard University, Lawrence Summers, who "is fighting to keep his job, after suggesting that
women might be intrinsically disadvantaged in studying science." The editorial concludes: "In the Information Age, we are all at Harvard - and everywhere else -
for life, and it will be interesting to see how we all get along." Read on and consider how times have changes, and how well are we in NEO going to get along?

The Lawrence Summers Mess: Harvard Enters the Internet Age
By ADAM COHEN - NYTimes - Published: February 28, 2005

"You are here for four years," Henry Rosovsky, who long served as Harvard's dean of faculty, once told a group of students. "The faculty is here for life. And the institution is here forever." The quote became part of Harvard lore: a campus film society promoted a James Bond movie with the slogan, "You are here for four years; Dean Rosovsky is here for life; and Diamonds Are Forever." But it also came to embody, for my generation of students and alumni, Harvard's imperious view of its place in the world.

How times have changed. Harvard's president, Lawrence Summers, is fighting to keep his job, after suggesting that women might be intrinsically disadvantaged in studying science. The faculty has met twice recently to consider a no-confidence vote. And alumni, who are following events closely, have been writing and e-mailing in protest - and support - and threatening to cut off contributions.

The Summers controversy is being talked about as an ideological dispute, and a biodrama, and it is both. But it is also a story about Harvard in the Information Age. Today's Internet-driven, media-saturated era is promoting two things inimical to the sort of absolute power Harvard's leaders have long been used to: transparency and the ability of like-minded people to network easily.

Before the controversy is over, it is likely that Mr. Summers's critics will win some concessions. That is a good thing: Harvard needs more women faculty, and fewer comments from top administrators denigrating people's innate abilities. But there is also reason to be wary. The stunning success of the anti-Summers campaign suggests that Harvard, and universities in general, may be entering a new era of vulnerability to outside pressure, and there is no telling who the next villagers holding the torches in Harvard Yard will be, or who they will identify as the next monsters.

Harvard's leaders can be excused for feeling above the fray. The university has been running its own affairs since 1636, far longer than the United States government, and without checks and balances. Harvard's president reports to a board, known as the corporation, that fills its own vacancies as they come up. Neither the president, as in a democracy, nor the board, as in a business, stands for election.

Harvard has a long history of fighting off outside pressure. Many of the campaigns it has turned back - like the one for a living wage for Harvard employees - have come from the left. But in the 1950's, Harvard's president, Nathan Pusey, stood up to Senator Joseph McCarthy's demand that he fire professors for suspected Communist sympathies. More recently, Harvard argued in the Supreme Court in 2003 for affirmative action in admissions, over the objections of some alumni.

The current controversy is really two disputes rolled into one: the blow-up over Mr. Summers's comments about women, and lingering unhappiness in parts of the university community over his treatment of the Afro-American studies department, and of Cornel West, who left for Princeton after a disagreeable meeting with Mr. Summers. Both were private academic encounters. Mr. Summers made his comments about women at an invitation-only academic conference, and his talk with Mr. West occurred at a closed-door meeting. But intense media attention quickly lifted the veil of secrecy on both.

The Internet has played an unprecedented role, both in spreading the news and in rallying the troops on both sides. The liberal blogosphere has taken up the controversy energetically: a single anti-Summers post on Daily Kos drew more than 800 comments, some from Harvard alumni. Other sites have posted the main documents in the dispute, and are encouraging people to contact the media. Mr. Summers is being defended by conservative blogs and studentsforlarry.org, which has an online petition. Even the normally reclusive Harvard Corporation has posted a letter supporting Mr. Summers on an alumni Web site.

As a formal matter, Mr. Summers's future depends solely on the corporation, where he has many friends. But two of his biggest jobs are raising money from alumni and protecting Harvard's name, which is critical for attracting top students and faculty, as well as research grants. The university cannot afford to have its president be regarded as divisive - or worse, sexist.

Mr. Summers's critics are likely to score some points this time. He will no doubt be more circumspect now, and the university can be expected to make greater - and long-overdue - efforts to hire more women. But once the floodgates open, it is unlikely that all of the pressure on Harvard will come from the left. Harvard has plenty of conservative alumni, particularly among its biggest donors. These alumni - or federal grant-makers - could one day pressure Harvard to scale back diversity efforts or curtail free expression.

Harvard has always been an academic trendsetter, and the campaign against Mr. Summers could encourage alumni, faculty and taxpayers to lay siege to other universities. Conservative talk radio and cable TV - fresh from the successful ousting of Dan Rather and the CNN executive Eason Jordan - are pressuring the University of Colorado to fire Ward Churchill, an ethnic studies professor who made moronic, offensive but constitutionally protected comments comparing some Sept. 11 victims to Nazis.

The question of whether a Harvard that is more transparent, and more attuned to the wishes of alumni and the public, is a good thing is irrelevant. It has arrived. Mr. Rosovsky's suggestion that students could be dismissed because they are on campus for only four years turns out to have been based on a distinctly 20th-century notion of geography. In the Information Age, we are all at Harvard - and everywhere else - for life, and it will be interesting to see how we all get along.