Of possible relevance to Dean Velvel's recent post calling for the ouster of Harvard president Lawrence Summers for “downgrad[ing] honesty and integrity at the nation’s leading academic institution,” casting doubt on “almost all members of the Harvard faculty,” and setting “a horrible example for all other schools that look to Harvard for leadership” is an article in the May 13, 2005, issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education which can be found here (subscription required) and also here.
The article is by esteemed scholar and former university administrator Stanley Fish (for an extensive website on his work, see here). Alert readers of this blog know this is Dean Fish's second major article on President Summers. In the February 23, 2005, issue of the Chronicle, Dean Fish published an article entitled, "Clueless in Academe," which we regard as supportive of Dean Velvel's view of President Summers, and to which we therefore linked in our annotated version of Dean Velvel's post, here (paragraph 63). Dean Fish and Dean Velvel are perhaps the two most vocal academic critics of President Summers outside of Harvard.
This article is entitled, "Chickens: The Ward Churchill and Larry Summers Story." It sets forth a detailed comparison of the recent controversies which have consumed both Professor Churchill and President Summers. Dean Fish is, if anything, even more critical of President Summers than in his earlier article: Summers is "a public-relations disaster, a walking time bomb likely to detonate at any moment, especially if his handlers let him out of their sight."
Here is an excerpt from the article with some of Dean Fish's comments about President Summers.
[T]here is really not much to say about Summers except that he's a public-relations disaster, a walking time bomb likely to detonate at any moment, especially if his handlers let him out of their sight. One can say something about what issues the Summers brouhaha does not raise. It does not raise issues of free speech or academic freedom.* * *
To be sure, some on the left do want Summers fired because of the content of what he said, while some on the right want him retained (and celebrated) because of the content of what he said. Both sides, then, want, in different ways and for different reasons, to make Summers into a First Amendment martyr and turn this incident into a First Amendment test. But the content of what Summers said is irrelevant to the only question that should be asked: Is he discharging the duties and obligations of his office in a way that protects the reputation of the university and fosters its academic, political, and financial health? There is good reason to answer no, an answer that would flow not from the fact that Summers said this or that about women in science, but from the fact that, whatever he said, he said it in a way that brought Harvard weeks, and now months, of hostile publicity, led some alumni to announce that they would never give a penny to the institution, probably led many senior female scientists to cross Harvard off their lists, and gave late-night comedians and independent pundits like me a new target. That's not exactly what you want on the résumé of your chief executive officer.
Defenders of Summers usually take two (related) tacks. They say, first, that he is an intellectual pathbreaker, and that (I quote from a particularly smarmy and pious editorial in the Chicago Tribune) his "comments were in the best tradition of free intellectual inquiry." Not unless the best traditions of intellectual inquiry include opening up your big mouth to pronounce publicly on matters far from your area of expertise. Richard A. Posner, the conservative jurist and law professor and sometime Harvard University Press author, points out (on his blog) that, since Summers has no credentials in the history of science or the field of gender discrimination, the odds of his contributing anything valuable to the discussion of women and science were low, while, on the other hand, the odds that he would misstep in some way were high. On a cost/benefit analysis, then, speaking up as he did was a bad idea.
The second line of defense begins by acknowledging that Summers wasn't exactly on familiar ground and was talking off the top of his head (with a little help from some members of his faculty), but contrives to make his ignorance a virtue: He wasn't offering scholarship or long-considered arguments; he was keeping the pot boiling; he was adding to the liveliness of the occasion; he was being (and this is the word Summers himself has used in his many apologies) "provocative." But being provocative is not in the job description; being provocative may be a qualification for a classroom teacher, or the host of a talk-radio show, or a backbencher in Parliament, but it is hardly first on the list of the qualities you look for when interviewing candidates for the presidency of a university.
That does not mean that presidents of universities should never be provocative, just that when a president is so, it should be with a strong understanding of the consequences for the institution that he or she leads. If Summers wants to live the life of a provocateur, he should get out of senior administration and into something else. Please don't misunderstand me. I'm not counseling timidity or advising administrators to be invisible. I'm just advising them to keep in mind always what their jobs are and what hangs on those jobs. It is there -- and not because of the content of what he said -- that Summers falls down.
It is not the first time. From the early days of his tenure as president, Summers has been making the wrong kind of headlines; wrong not because of his views, but because of the lack of tact with which he has announced and deployed them. One of those he bumped up against in a flap, whose reverberations have not yet subsided, was Cornel West, then at Harvard, now at Princeton University. The events of the past months gave West the delicious opportunity to speak more in sorrow than in anger. "I was praying for the brother, hoping he would change," West said, but then added, "It's clear he hasn't changed." Still and all, West acknowledged, there's a bright side to look on, for it's "good to see the faculty wake up." I guess, West concluded, "the chickens have come home to roost."
Man, those chickens are working overtime these days.