Harvard's Lawrence Summers makes for an unlikely hero of the conservative movement. His liberal credentials are impeccable: president of an Ivy League university, Secretary of the Treasury under President Clinton, and economic adviser to Michael Dukakis.
But Summers has gained notoriety among progressives, and won plaudits from conservatives, for eschewing the liberal pieties of academia and speaking out clearly on issues from which most university presidents quietly shy away.
Take the most recent flap over comments Summers made last Friday at an off-the-record conference hosted by the National Bureau of Economic Research. In an interview with the New York Times, Summers recounted that he was speculating as to why so few women can be found on math and science faculties at major research universities.
Introducing his remarks with the phrase "I'm going to provoke you," Summers offered several reasons for disproportionately male science faculties. First, he stated that attaining a tenured professorship in the sciences often requires eighty-hour-workweeks, a commitment that most women with children could not make.
He then reportedly asserted that it was important to consider the possibility, proffered by several social scientists, that differential performance in math and science could stem from biological differences between the sexes. Summers told the Times that "there's been some move in the research away from believing that all these things are shaped only by socialization" and that fundamental differences between men and women could account for some of the discrepancy.
For entertaining these thoughts and airing them publicly, Summers has been skewered by Harvard-Radcliffe alumnae and female members of science faculties nationwide. Nancy Hopkins, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) biologist, walked out of the talk because otherwise "I would've either blacked out or thrown up."
Harvard's Standing Committee on Women, citing an overall decline in female tenureships during Summers' reign, asserted that the president's comments "reinforce an institutional culture at Harvard that erects numerous barriers to improving the representation of women on the faculty."
Yet Summers remained steadfast, apologizing for any offense but maintaining his belief that "raising questions, discussing multiple factors that may explain a difficult problem, and seeking to understand how they interrelate is vitally important."
This episode, in which Summers refused to shrink from raising unpopular but legitimate hypotheses, represents only one more link in a chain of conduct that has established the president's reputation as a maverick unafraid to shake things up when appropriate.
In a September 2002 address at Harvard's Memorial Church, Summers famously tackled the delicate issue of anti-Semitism on college campuses. Citing an odious campaign to encourage the university to withdraw its investments from companies that do business in Israel, Summers, the first Harvard president to identify as a Jew, averred that "serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent." He also stated that while he has never been one to cry "Holocaust," concerns that global anti-Semitism is on the rise "seem rather less alarmist in the world of today than they did a year ago."
The address immediately triggered near-parodic outbursts of indignation from the anti-Israel left on campus, which thundered that the president was seeking to squelch academic freedom. This could hardly have been further from the truth. Dr. Bernard Steinberg, executive director of Harvard Hillel, the Jewish student organization, wrote, in praise of Summers, that we "strengthen free speech when we expose the illogic, ignorance, and injustice of the divestment campaign."
Summers took action in order to drain the swamps of bilious and hateful rhetoric that threatened to overwhelm any honest discussion of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Contrast his approach with that of beleaguered San Francisco State University president Robert Corrigan who has become infamous for his benign neglect of violent intimidation by Palestinian students on his campus.
Summers also made waves with a controversial encounter with Cornel West, then a professor of African-American studies at Harvard. Accounts of this meeting vary but Summers apparently attempted to encourage West to raise his level of serious scholarship -- according to some, West has not written so much as an academic article in over ten years -- and the professor did not take kindly to the president's counsel. After referring to Summers as a "bull in a China shop" and dubbing him "the Ariel Sharon of American higher education," West decamped for Princeton.
And the list goes on. In the wake of the September 11th attacks, Summers told an audience at the university's John F. Kennedy School of Government that he would like to see 9/11 spark "a greatly increased sense of patriotism." He later bolstered this call to duty with action when he declined to allow Harvard Law School to participate in a lawsuit that sought to compel the federal government to fund universities that refused to allow military recruiters on campus.
All this earned him the high praise of the Harvard Salient, the conservative campus newspaper, one of whose staff writers attested that "if there is one thing Summers has brought to the Kremlin on the Charles, it is a sense of order -- of morality, purpose and forthrightness -- that has long been lacking." While Summers is not likely to identify himself as a conservative, his tenure as president has inspired many on campus and elsewhere.
As famed Harvard linguist Steven Pinker put it, describing the scholarly debate over innate gender differences: "the truth cannot be offensive. Perhaps the hypothesis is wrong, but how would we ever find out whether it is wrong if it is 'offensive' even to consider it? People who storm out of a meeting at the mention of a hypothesis, or declare it taboo or offensive without providing arguments or evidence, don't get the concept of a university or free inquiry."
Summers' vision of a university comports with the best traditions of academia as a bastion of honest debate and openness to ideas. Sadly, these traditions have ebbed on today's campuses to the point where the mere attempt to restore them spawns furious resistance.
The University of Washington's dean of engineering criticized Summers because his remarks on gender "provoked an intellectual tsunami." But what in the name of academic inquiry could be wrong with that?
Michael M. Rosen, a TCS contributor, is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School.