[Paleopsych] Fish: Clueless in Academe

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Clueless in Academe
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.2.23 

    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.

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