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Jewish World Review Jan. 4, 2002 / 20 Teves, 5762

Diana West

Diana West
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Consumer Reports

Blacks seeing red at Harvard -- IN a fit of what may be called Ivy Pique, three prized professors from Harvard's Afro-American Studies department spent their Christmas holidays very publicly mulling a possible mass exodus in a definite mass huff from dear, old Harvard to dear, almost-as-old Princeton. Why? Harvard's new president, Lawrence H. Summers, it seems, needed a quick course in political correctness.

Not that anyone involved said so -- or much of anything else on the record. Anonymous surrogates kept whispering to the press in Boston and New York, but Summers wouldn't discuss conversations with faculty members; Afro-Am department chairman Henry Louis Gates Jr. wouldn't discuss complaints from department members; Afro-Am professor K. Anthony Appiah wouldn't discuss meetings with Princeton officials; and Cornel West, another Afro-Am professor who recently made a few choice headlines by declaring that America had been "niggerized by the terrorist attacks," wouldn't discuss anything -- not his rap CD recorded while on medical leave, not his role in the Rev. Al Sharpton's presidential exploratory committee, not Harvard's endemic grade inflation, nothing.

And certainly not what The New York Times called the "critical moment" in this contretemps -- West's private meeting with Summers in October, at which such sore subjects were reportedly raised, leaving West feeling "violated." Or so says The Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Jesse Jackson? How did he get into this? The short answer is that the good reverend flew in, descending on Cambridge on New Year's Day, to push for a "national conference on racial justice" (natch) and to seek "clarity" on Harvard's "diversity policy." This policy -- creed, really -- is the source of the controversy. As it happens, Harvard's new president of six months has nothing but unqualified support for "diversity," that semantically slippery term for the goals of affirmative action. (According to Harvard's admissions office, the university has never, ever practiced affirmative action.) The question being asked of Summers was whether his commitment to "diversity" was unqualified enough.

Meanwhile, not to be out-raced, Sharpton made his own public pitch for "clarification." Sharpton suddenly wanted to know whether Harvard had "rebuked" Cornel West -- who claims, according to his own words, that he has an "intellectual lineage...through Schopenhauer, Tolstoy, Rilke, Melville, Lorca, Kafka, Celan, Beckett, Soyinka, O'Neill, Kazantzakis, Morrison, and above all, Chekhov" -- for joining Sharpton's proto-presidential campaign. If so, Sharpton told The Boston Globe, it could not only keep professors across the nation from supporting his candidacy for fear of repercussions, but it could also drive Sharpton to file suit against Harvard as an "aggrieved party."

It's enough to make you pity a poor Harvard president -- almost. How could this have happened? Summers, not one to see college applicants through color-blind glasses, supports "diversity" and says so -- or his spokesman does -- at every opportunity. This, apparently, has been insufficient. "It's absolutely critical that the president make an unequivocal public statement in support of affirmative action. That would be encouraging for those scholars ... recruited because this was going to be the premier institution of black intellectual inquiry," says Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., a Harvard Law School professor best known for leading the legal effort to extract reparations for slavery, to The New York Times.

(Oops: Since Harvard says it doesn't practice affirmative action, didn't the law prof mean to call for a presidential statement supporting "diversity"?)

Ogletree, magnanimously, has since signaled a willingness to work with Summers to "make Harvard a pre-eminent university."

Maybe that won't be necessary. Summers has decided to begin the year right -- at least, more correctly -- by publicly restating his diversity creed. In a written statement, Summers announced his intentions "to create an ever more open and inclusive environment," by drawing on "the widest possible range of talents" to promote "ever greater opportunity for all," because "diversity contributes to educational excellence." (Summers also took the opportunity to underscore Harvard's desire "to see the current (Afro-Am) faculty stay at Harvard," promising to "compete vigorously" -- ka-ching, ka-ching? - "to make this an attractive environment.")

Looks like he finally made the grade. The statement "meets the objectives that many people had set forth." Ogletree told the Harvard Crimson, "It's strong, it's clear, it's unequivocal." Even Jesse Jackson called Summers' statement "positive," while Appiah now says his Princeton visit was purely social. No word as yet from Gates, West and Sharpton, but it does look as if Harvard is heading for, if not a happy ending, at least an ending.

Not so fast. According to The Boston Globe, there's trouble ahead: "Now, echoing some top scholars in Harvard's Afro-American Studies department, many Latino professors are questioning Summers' commitment to diversity, and some say they are considering jobs at other universities...."

Can't wait to hear what Harvard has to say about that?

JWR contributor Diana West is a columnist and editorial writer for the Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, Diana West