Laurence Summers: Profile In Courage by Rafael Rosen and Michael Rosen

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CAMBRIDGE, MA — Peering out the window of one of this town’s many excellent coffeeshops, one could be forgiven for thinking that all is right at Harvard.

The ancient pageantry of commencement, conducted this week, still inflects Harvard Square as newly minted Ph.D.’s and college grads alike stride confidently along Mt. Auburn Street, proudly exhibiting their regalia.

The Harvard graduation ceremony — the school’s 355th — doesn’t differ all that much from other schools’ commencements. Yet the colorful formalism of the procession — replete with former class marshals in top hats and tails; the supervisory presence of Harvard’s Corporation, College Fellows, and Board of Overseers; and the venerable Sheriff of Middlesex County’s calling the meeting to order — bears witness to just how old and traditional Harvard’s spring ritual is. Fittingly, the ceremony itself is performed in “Tercentenary Theatre.”

At moments like these, the very best of Harvard — its undying commitment to the traditions of the academy — shines through even the rain that lashed 30,000 spectators assembled for commencement.

And yet, the nation’s oldest university has endured some of its very worst moments recently as its faculty unceremoniously showed President Lawrence Summers the door. And as Harvard struggles to find a successor to its formidable ousted leader, daunting challenges remain.

The contrast between the splendor of commencement and the purging of Summers is clearly on the minds of everyone in attendance — students, parents, alumni, faculty, and administrators. Entering the Yard, one is greeted by volunteers distributing copies of The Gazette (the administration’s newspaper, known affectionately as “Harvard’s Pravda“) and The Crimson (the student paper), both of whose front pages bear prominent photos of the outgoing president. Seemingly every other spectator is discussing, in muffled tones, Summers’s last graduation.

And when he finally arrives at the head of the procession — unlike others, wearing no hat or poncho despite the driving rain — he shakes hands and greets well-wishers with a somber smile. He is greeted by the College students’ stentorian chants of “Larry! Larry! Larry!” — a fitting bookend to the throngs of crestfallen undergrads who surrounded him during his resignation announcement.

What endeared Summers so much to students was his fundamental commitment to restoring the noble values of academia — namely, ensuring that professors actually taught students engaging, challenging material, partook of truly open-minded intellectual inquiry, and resisted the fatuous enticements of simplistic political sloganism.

The commitment to academic integrity that Summers urged upon Harvard transcends the impetuous politics of right and left. Summers himself, who served as President Clinton’s Treasury Secretary, is an iconic New Democrat. Yet his calls for reform were met with implacable hostility from the most reactionary elements at Harvard.

What, then, were the sins of Summers? First, he made the daring suggestion that professors offer classes that provide students with broad knowledge of a given field. For instance, Harvard’s creaky “core” curriculum — required of all students in order to graduate — contains few classes of the “English Literature: A Survey” variety and far more of the “Uninhibited Selves: Deconstructing Transgressive Narratives in Hunter S. Thompson’s Corpus” type. Super-specialized faculty members chafed at Summers’s naïve attempt to increase the breadth of their course offerings.

Summers also strove to unify the university across different disciplines. As he told The Crimson in his parting interview, his goals included “breaking down some of the barriers, financial and intellectual, between Harvard’s schools.” Yet bringing coherence to nearly a dozen different schools sprawled on both sides of the Charles River proved a very challenging task — especially in the face of turf-protective deans.

His more controversial moments included his infamous discussion of respected scholarly work on the possibility of innate cognitive differences between men and women. In that instance, the ferocity of his critics was matched only by the slavishness of his numerous apologies. But he was right to go with his instinct: defending academic inquiry, even when it conflicted with contemporary (hyper)sensitivities.

In the same vein he sharply rebuked academic boycotts of Israel. When a group of Harvard faculty members and graduate students sought to persuade Harvard’s Corporation to divest its holdings in the Jewish state, Summers rightly decried the petition as anti-Semitic in its effect. Recently, he went still further, denouncing a British academic union’s proposed boycott for singling out Israel. Summers expressed his expectation that it would be “repudiated in the strongest possible terms by scholars in Britain and beyond.”

In contradistinction to far too many university administrators, Summers appreciated that the academic left’s faddish flirtation with hateful Israel-bashing doesn’t merely border on the anti-Semitic; it corrodes scholarly freedom and what ought to be the esteemed integrity of the Ivory Tower.

Yet another controversy has been the place of the military on campus which, in Harvard’s case, is effectively non-existent. Our grandfather, a decorated World War II Navy vet in town for graduation, attended a touching ceremony in which nine ROTC officers received their commissions on the steps of Harvard’s hallowed (World War I) Memorial Church. Though Summers further aroused the ire of the military’s critics when he became the first Harvard president in recent memory to address the new officers, those involved in the ceremony heaped adulation upon him. Somber, proud parents and their student-officer children expressed deep gratitude to Summers for his courage to stand up to unchallenged academic assumptions.

This year, he received what would otherwise be a kiss of death for any university administrator: a letter of thanks from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld praising him for offering a “recognition of [the officers’] personal commitment to serve this great nation.” Summers was the rare president who recognized both the need for and the ability of Harvard students to actually improve the country and the world.

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We needn’t shed a tear for Summers personally; he’s now getting to do what anyone dreams of. As he told the Crimson, “I’m looking forward to doing what I haven’t really had a chance to do in 15 years…to reflect, to write, and to speak freely, unencumbered by any institutional responsibility.”

But we should fret on Harvard’s behalf. In his commencement address, Summers said that “If Harvard can find the courage to change itself, it can change the world.” We hope he is right — and though the messenger departs, his message endures.

Raphael C. Rosen graduated from Harvard College’s Class of 2006 last Thursday. Michael M. Rosen, TCS Daily’s IP columnist, is looking forward to his 10-year reunion in a few years’ time.

Laurence Summers: Profile In Courage by Rafael Rosen and Michael Rosen

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Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) is not-for-profit [501 (C) (3)], grass-roots community of scholars who have united to promote honest, fact-based, and civil discourse, especially in regard to Middle East issues. We believe that ethnic, national, and religious hatreds, including anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism, have no place in our institutions, disciplines, and communities. We employ academic means to address these issues.

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