Harvard and Larry Summers

HARVARD AND LARRY SUMMERS….Over at Left2Right, Elizabeth Anderson, a professor of philosophy and women’s studies at the University of Michigan, has an idiosyncratic look at the whole Larry Summers flap. Her overall position seems to be that the real problem is “rot in the system” at Harvard, not Summers per se, but she then proceeds to criticize Summers on three separate grounds:

  • About the Cornel West kerfuffle a few years ago:

    Grade inflation is a serious issue well within the province of the President. But it is ludicrous and demeaning to single out West on this count, given its pervasiveness at Harvard….What may be a legitimate form of institutional accountability and standard-setting in an impersonal, publicly vetted, and universally applied system of rules becomes an imperious violation of academic freedom in the hands of a President who applies privately tailored standards at his personal discretion.

    Hmmm. This somehow seems too clever by half. I accept her point that if Summers is genuinely concerned about things like grade inflation he should offer an institutional solution, not a one-off dressing down. On the other hand, it’s hard to get people to take this stuff seriously. Sometimes a high profile criticism is the only thing that will ruffle enough feathers to get people to sit up and take notice.

  • On his recent talk about women in science:

    Research scientists are entitled to their biases, in the sense that science can’t get underway without people willing to place their bets on sometimes controversial hypotheses as yet unproved, and can’t succeed unless people are free to vigorously pursue such hypotheses even in the face of rival hypotheses claiming their own empirical support. [But] Summers was not speaking as a research scientist in the fields in question. He was speaking as the President of Harvard University. In that capacity, Summers’ deployment of his biases could not function in the fruitful way biases often function among research scientists. They functioned instead as lame excuses for a poor institutional record of tenuring women.

    I’m not quite as convinced as Anderson that Summers’ substantive case was utterly without merit ? only mostly without merit ? but I agree that Summers’s position is really the main issue here. There’s a context to everything, and the context for Summers is that he’s the president of Harvard, it’s an institution with some longstanding grievances in this area, and he has considerable power to influence who’s hired and who isn’t. When you’re in a position like that, you don’t just muse out loud about stuff this sensitive unless you’re awfully well prepared. He’s a university president, not a blogger. (For now, anyway….)

  • On Summers’s lack of action in response to allegations of widespread plagiarism:

    Plagiarism of published works is but a symptom of wholesale plagiarizing of texts submitted by research assistants. The offending authors failed to recognize that the passages from published works were not in their own voice, because their method of “writing” books by assembling and editing minimally referenced memos drafted by research assistants is inconsistent with having a voice.

    She’s saying that the offending authors didn’t deliberately plagiarize, they just outsourced their drafting to research assistants, and they were the ones who plagiarized. Damn. I had no idea. Is this really how Harvard professors write books?

    [UPDATE: Upon rereading, it’s not entirely clear what Anderson is saying here. Are the research assistants plagiarizing material and the profs don’t know it? Or are they quoting source material properly but the profs somehow don’t realize they’re reading quoted material when they steal the text? I’m not sure which scenario Anderson was actually implying.]

Overall, Anderson thinks the real faculty revolt at Harvard is because “the senior faculty have been getting from President Summers a dose of the humiliating medicine so many of them have happily doled out to the lower academic orders for decades” ? medicine that Anderson herself presumably tasted when she was there. Sounds like maybe Summers and Harvard are a match made in heaven after all.

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