April 7, 2005

Criticizing Summers harms free inquiry

A lot of times, I find it hard to understand what people were thinking at a given moment. Steve Bartman is a good example. Everyone in Wrigley was giving Cubs left-fielder Moises Alou as much room as possible, and then this guy decided it would be a good idea to try and take home a souvenir. The Cubs went on to lose the 2003 National League Championship Series and their best shot at a World Series since 1945.

These days, Harvard University is a lot like Steve Bartman. Some members of the faculty are on the warpath against Harvard President Larry Summers for remarks he made at an economic conference about why women are underrepresented in the sciences. Summers suggested three possibilities deserved further review: the academic world of the sciences is highly competitive, and when women have children, it cuts into the time they have to do research; women are discriminated against; and there may be gender-based differences in the way people think.

That last comment sent some at Harvard into orbit. The notion that one gender might be naturally better at some tasks was derided as dangerously sexist. After weeks of testy meetings and rejection of Summers's profuse apologies, the arts and sciences faculty voted 218-185 to express "no confidence" in his leadership. Some called for his resignation. Of course, there was more to the story. One faculty member said that those who supported the resolution "object to Larry either because they think he's an arrogant prick who deserves to be taken down a peg, or because they think he's funneling money in the wrong direction." Another faculty member was distraught over how stifling it was making the university look.

The obvious irony of members of this bastion of higher education forming a lynch mob to destroy an academic who raised a question was not lost on the general public. The Washington Post ran an editorial saying that "If Lawrence Summers loses his job for the crime of positing a politically incorrect hypothesis—or even if he pays some lesser price for it—the chilling effect on free inquiry will harm everyone." I think that everyone agrees with Voltaire on this one: People are of course allowed to disagree with what was said, but they must defend to the death his right to say it.

Just as Steve Bartman assumed that his ticket entitled him to interfere with the ball in play, it seems as though some academics think that it is perfectly all right to trash a revered institution to scratch the PC itch. I think that sometimes people get so entrenched in their own cultural mores that they are unable to accept any sort of criticism or challenge. Harvard is a lot like Bartman in a way. Looking at them, you can see them reaching out for that foul ball that everyone else knew to avoid. They don't know it, but they are about to make a sham of their profession and institution. They are about to become what "that fan" was to the Cubs. They are about to become "that college."

Poor Bartman probably has to wear a disguise to go to a Cubs game. University professors unfortunately get to hide behind their tenure. So I say this: Come down from that ivory tower, Harvard. You may have cost the institution of the university a lot, but I forgive you. Next time, sit farther back from the third base line.