[Paleopsych] Fish: Clueless in Academe
checker at panix.com
Wed Mar 30 20:17:51 UTC 2005
Clueless in Academe
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.2.23
By STANLEY FISH
All in the Game
An inside look at the politics of academic careers
Imagine this scene: It is some months ago and there is a meeting in
the office of the president of Harvard University. Larry Summers asks,
"What kind of progress are we making in recruiting and promoting women
in the sciences?"
"Not very much," answers one of his lieutenants, "and, in fact, the
figures have declined rather precipitously during your stewardship. I
don't know what to do about this, but we have to do something."
"I have an idea," Summers says excitedly. "Everybody thinks that I'm a
klutz and a serial bungler. What if I participate in a conference on
this very subject and say something outrageous and dumb. There will be
a great outcry and calls for action from all sides, and in the end
I'll be forced to take steps for which I probably couldn't get support
today. How does that sound?"
"Brilliant" is the choral response.
Did it happen that way? Was Summers taking a page out of the book of
Denny Crane, the lawyer played by William Shatner on Boston Legal, who
uses the perception that he is losing his marbles to gain an advantage
in the courtroom and in the political maneuverings of his law firm?
Well, I don't know. And neither do I know any flies on the wall, but
the results have certainly occurred and have been widely reported. Two
task forces have been appointed; their reports are to be completed and
submitted by May 1 (literally warp speed in the molasses world of
academic administration), and the university promises to act on their
recommendations by September, thereby breaking all land- and air-speed
records known to academic man; oops, I mean academic man and woman.
Barbara Grosz, dean of science at Harvard's Radcliffe Institute for
Advanced Study, and now the head of one of the task forces, makes my
point when she says, "There is now an opportunity that didn't exist
before." That is, had Summers not (apparently) put his very big foot
into his very big mouth, none of this would have happened, or at least
would not have happened in the space of a few months.
My fanciful speculation has a real point. It is only if Summers'
performance at the January 14th conference (where he wondered if the
underrepresentation of women in the sciences and math might have a
genetic basis) was intentional -- it is only if he knew what he was
doing -- that he can be absolved of the most serious of the charges
that might be brought against him. And that is not the charge that his
views on the matter were uninformed and underresearched (as they
certainly were), nor the charge that he has damaged the cause of women
in science (which he surely has), but the charge that he wasn't doing
his job and didn't even seem to know what it was.
For the record, his job is being president of Harvard University. And
you get a sense of the kind of job it is when you recall that one of
his august predecessors, having been urged to be a candidate for the
presidency of the United States, replied, "Why would I step down in
What the anecdote (apocryphal or not) tells us is that the president
of Harvard is in the E.F. Hutton position: When he speaks, everyone
listens, and everyone listens to him as the president of Harvard, and
not as good-old plain-speaking Larry Summers.
That basic fact seems to have escaped Richard Freeman, a Harvard
professor and one of the organizers of the fatal conference, who said
in comments to a newspaper, "We didn't invite Larry as a Harvard
president. ... We invited him because he has an extremely powerful and
interesting mind." Freeman then added, "If we had invited him as
Harvard president, he would have given us the same type of babble that
university presidents give, and thank God we have a president who
doesn't say that."
There are so many things wrong with those statements that it's hard to
know where to begin. First, Summers's powerful and interesting mind
must have been taking a day off. Second, the faculty members and
students at Harvard can at least thank God that Richard Freeman is not
their president; for he seems to be even more clueless than the
incumbent he defends. Third (and more important), the president of
Harvard always carries his office with him. His pronouncements (wise
and foolish) are always uttered ex cathedra and can never be detached
from the responsibilities of his office. (Exactly the point made by
Harvard's Standing Committee on Women in a letter of almost parental
rebuke: "The president of a university never speaks entirely as an
individual, especially when that institution is Harvard.")
Larry Summers is no more free to pop off at the mouth about a vexed
academic question than George Bush is free to wander around the
country dropping off-the-cuff remarks about Social Security or Islam.
Of course both men are free in the First Amendment sense to say
anything that comes into their pretty little heads; but the
constitutional freedom they enjoy is freedom from legal consequences,
not from consequences in general. (Can anyone say, Trent Lott?)
The constraints on speaking that come along with occupying a position
have nothing to do with the First Amendment (there are no free-speech
issues here, as there almost never are on college campuses) and
everything to do with the legitimate expectations that are part and
parcel of the job you have accepted and for which you are (in this
case, handsomely) paid.
Those expectations (and the requirements they subtend) are not
philosophical, but empirical and pragmatic. They, include, first and
foremost, the expectation that you will comport yourself in ways that
bring credit, not obloquy, to the institution you lead.
That doesn't mean that there are things you can't say or things you
must say. Rather, it means that whatever you say, you have to be aware
of the possible effects your utterance might produce, especially if
those effects touch the health and reputation of the university.
Steven Pinker (another Harvard luminary) asks, "Good grief, shouldn't
everything be within the pale of academic discourse, as long as it is
presented with some degree of academic rigor?"
The answer is yes (although the "academic rigor" part can certainly be
disputed in this case), but the answer and the question are beside the
point because academic discourse is not the game Larry Summers can
possibly be playing -- remember, he's the president, all the time --
even when he finds himself in a setting where everyone else is playing
it. James Traub observed in The New York Times that Pinker's views on
innate differences between men and women are close to those voiced (as
a speculation) by Summers. But if that is Pinker's reason for
defending Summers, it is a bad one.
As a faculty member you should not give your president high marks
because he expresses views you approve or low marks because he
espouses views you reject. Your evaluation of him or her (now there's
a solution to Harvard's problem) should be made in the context of the
only relevant question -- not "Does what he says meet the highest
standards of scholarship?" or "Is what he says politically correct or
bravely politically incorrect?" (an alternative form of political
correctness) or even "Is what he says true?" but "Is he, in saying it
(whatever it is) carrying out the duties of his office in a manner
that furthers the interests of the enterprise?"
Almost everyone who has commented on this fiasco (including the
principal actor) gets it wrong by regarding it as an instance of some
high-falutin issue rather than as an example of someone falling down
on his job.
The offended academic left sees Summers's remarks as an affront to its
causes and as the latest chapter in the sad history of
gender-discrimination. The right (both inside and outside the academy)
regards the entire hullabaloo as an instance of political correctness
run (once again) amok. And pundits on both sides think that something
deep about the nature of a university is at stake here. (Whenever the
phrase "academic freedom" is invoked, you know you're hearing cant.)
Brian McGrory, a Boston Globe columnist, achieves a new high in
fatuousness, even in this rather dreary context, when he observes
portentously, "I've always assumed that the strength of the academy is
its ability to encourage difficult questions" (January 21).
Well, that may be the strength of the academy, but it is not the
strength sought by search committees when they interview candidates
for senior administrative positions. No search committee asks, "Can we
count on you to rile things up? Can we look forward to days of hostile
press coverage? Can you give us a list of the constituencies you
intend to offend?"
Search committees do ask, "What is your experience with budgets?" and
"What are your views on the place of intercollegiate athletics?" and
"What will be your strategy for recruiting a world-class faculty?" and
"How will you create a climate attractive to donors?"
The Larry Summers of this episode might have a little trouble with the
last two questions, and he wouldn't help his cause by saying, as he
now has in a profusion of apologies, I was just being provocative.
Sorry, that's not in the job description; nor is the (supposedly)
moral quality claimed for Summers by Freeman when he describes him as
"a straight-talking, no-baloney president." (That goes along with
Freeman's assumption that a university president can either speak
meaningless "babble" or go boldly where no man, at least one with half
a brain, has gone before; but surely one can be strong and tactful at
the same time.)
If straight-talking, with no concern for the fallout that may follow,
is what you like to do; if that is your preferred brand of baloney ("I
just call them as I see them"), then maybe you've wandered into the
wrong profession. Not every virtue (if straight-talking is a virtue,
and I have my doubts) is pertinent to every practice, and it is surely
part of your responsibility to know what virtues are appropriate to
the position you hold.
In the end, there is only one question (with many parts): Does Harvard
want a president who makes Prince Harry of England -- he at least has
the excuse of being 20 and without a real job -- seem sensitive and
sophisticated? Does Harvard want a president who makes the proverbial
bull in the china shop seem like Nijinsky? Does Harvard want a
president who, despite the reputation of being brilliant (where's the
beef?) acts as if he were the leader of the Know Nothing Party? Does
Harvard want a president who cannot be trusted to go out into the
world without a keeper?
The answer, I guess, is "yes."
Stanley Fish, dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and
Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, writes a monthly
column on campus politics and academic careers.
More information about the paleopsych