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Jewish World Review Jan. 7, 2002 / 23 Teves 5762

Philip Terzian

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The education of Larry Summers -- LAWRENCE H. SUMMERS, who was Bill Clinton's last secretary of the treasury, enjoys a reputation as an academic wunderkind, economic sage and bureaucrat who does not suffer fools gladly. But then last year, Mr. Summers was appointed to the Harvard presidency, where suffering fools may be an occupational hazard. A case in point is his recent violation of the code of racial etiquette, as widely understood in Cambridge, Mass.

It seems that President Summers invited Prof. Cornel West, the race-minded writer and publicist, in for a chat this past fall. Cornel West, part of the self-described academic "dream team" assembled by Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr. in Harvard's Department of Afro-American Studies, may be best known for his recent declaration that the United States had been "niggerized by the terrorist attacks" on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Details are incomplete, but President Summers seems to have complained to Professor West about his notion of academic standards: His chairmanship of the Rev. Al Sharpton's presidential exploratory committee, his gut introductory course on black studies where half the students get A's, and his recently-released rap CD, recorded while absent from Harvard on medical leave.

President Summers appears to have suggested to Professor West that he choose his extracurricular activities with better care, and devote himself more to his Harvard duties. But what President Summers seems not to have realized is that, by holding Professor West to the ordinary standards expected of Harvard faculty members, he disrespected one of America's leading African-American polemicists. As Professor West, Professor Gates or any of their colleagues at Harvard's W.E.B. DuBois Institute could have told him, "dissing" is a calculated affront, an ethnic insult, for which amends must be made.

The whirlwind was not long in coming. Professor Gates, Professor West and Prof. Kwame Anthony Appiah soon made it clear that they were so disturbed by President Summers's evident racial insensitivity that they might be tempted to accept a longstanding offer to transfer Harvard's Department of Afro-American Studies, and perhaps the W.E.B. DuBois Institute, intact to Princeton. Reporter Pamela Ferdinand wrote a breathless story in The Washington Post, quoting innumerable anonymous faculty sources, explaining that unless President Summers apologized to Professor West, and swore his public fealty to racial quotas, the university's fidelity to veritas, Latin for truth and Harvard's motto, would be called into question.

To be sure, no racial controversy would be complete without the arrival of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who called for a "national conference on racial justice" at Harvard, and speaking from the pulpit in Cambridge, demanded "clarity" about Harvard's devotion to affirmative action. Not to be outdone was the Reverend Jackson's main rival, the aforementioned Reverend Sharpton, who plans to sue Harvard for questioning Professor West's contribution to his candidacy.

To all of which, in due course, President Summers suitably responded. At the height of this manufactured furor, he met with Professor West to express his admiration, pledge more cash to subsidize the Dream Team, and issue a statement on Harvard's support for "diversity" -- which, in Cambridge and elsewhere, may be translated as uniformity of thought and action.

It should be noted, of course, that all of this has less to do with race than with money. Harvard is not alone among institutions of higher learning in purchasing academic celebrities like Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates Jr., and it pays a certain price in lavishing attention on scholars with an inexhaustible appetite for flattery and loot. The fact that the money that is showered on the Dream Team is deducted from other academic resources, and yields little in the way of useful scholarship, is a fair trade so far as Harvard is concerned. The modern university president understands that, in the short term, truth is less valuable than publicity; and that "diversity" ensures that Harvard's Department of Afro-American Studies, and the W.E.B. DuBois Institute, will continue to adhere to strict ideological standards.

Then again, race does have something to do with it, for no sooner had President Summers offered his sword to Professor West than the university's Latino scholars were heard from. Harvard's commitment to diversity, they declared, required nothing less than a separate department, new programs and policies, and a Latino studies center. This is probably not what President Summers, or any of his distinguished predecessors, had in mind; but if black Americans are to be segregated within the academic establishment, why not balkanize the university in general? It would satisfy every race- and ethnic-conscious scholar at Harvard, and grant to Massachusetts the same standards of fair play that Gov. George Wallace defended at the University of Alabama.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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