In Defense of Academic Freedom at Harvard

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Mr. Thernstrom is Winthrop Professor of History at Harvard University.

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These comments were made at the March 15, 2005 meeting of the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Science.

Many of the criticisms of President Summers involve his personality and management style. But I will focus exclusively on the issue raised by his remarks at the National Bureau of Economic Research in January. That is the issue I address because it raises crucial questions about something I thought we all cherished--academic freedom. Academic Freedom is on trial here, and a victory for President Summers's critics will be a deadly blow to academic freedom in American higher education. A previous speaker has claimed that the comments made by Professor Summers have set back the position of women at Harvard by forty years. I emphatically disagree, and suggest that a vote to censure him for his speech will set the university back by fifty years, back to the days of McCarthyism.

When I came to Harvard as a graduate student in 1956, most academics understood the vital importance of academic freedom; they had to when it was so obviously under attack. That period produced what is arguably still the best book on the subject: Richard Hofstadter and Walter Metzger, The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States, published in 1955.

How quickly we forget. It is amazing to me that many of us here no longer seem to understand that the expression of controversial ideas and the freedom to debate them is at the heart of any greater institution of higher learning. The whole point of tenure, as I understand it, is to protect professors from the thought police. But now they are not just outside, on some congressional or state legislative committee. They are inside too, in our midst.

If the carefully qualified, speculative, deliberately provocative remarks made by President Summers at the National Bureau of Economic Research are grounds for removing him from the presidency, I don't see how we can stop with that action. Shouldn't he be fired from his teaching post, or at least formally censured? If it is a grave offense for college presidents speaking from the perspective of their discipline at a closed academic meeting to advance certain controversial views, why should such a professor be allowed to warp the minds of our students? Won't female students, for example, find his classroom a "hostile environment"? One previous speaker, astonishingly, repeatedly referred to women at Harvard--both students and faculty--as "vulnerable" creatures, as if they had to be sheltered from certain ideas that should never be advanced in the presence of a lady. Full equality for women evidently requires reverting to Victorian conceptions of the oh-so-delicate female constitution. If this perspective is that of a majority of this faculty, some day, another Hofstadter and Metzger will tell the story of academic freedom in the United States since the 1950s, and I fear that the discussion of this controversy make a very sorry chapter in our history.

Recall how this whole brouhaha began. Nancy Hopkins, a professor at MIT, attended an academic meeting closed to the public and the press precisely in order to insure an uninhibited discussion of a hot-button issue. She was so offended by the suggestions made by President Summers's remarks that she felt she would vomit unless she rushed from the room. So she did rush out, and proceeded to inform the Boston Globe that she was shocked, shocked that some unbearably provocative speech had been committed at an academic conference. If hearing ideas that she deeply disagrees with makes her physically ill, I suggest that Professor Hopkins's temperament is ill-suited for academic life, the lifeblood of which is free inquiry and unfettered debate. She evidently prefers to live safely behind some mental Maginot Line where she never encounters ideas that upset her tender stomach. Sadly, a previous speaker has claimed that most Harvard women feel the same way. I cannot believe it, and I pray it is not true.

At our last meeting devoted to discussion of this issue, one speaker glossed the term "provocative," used several times by President Summers in his offending comments at the NBER. She contended that the term was in fact quite sinister because to provoke is to provoke conflict, sometimes even violent conflict, and we certainly don't want that in the university "community." I, to the contrary, think that a provocative speech in the academy is intended to provoke thought and reasoned argument.

Equally questionable, in my view, are the repeated references that faculty members have made to the Harvard "community," which are intended to suggest that President Summers had given voice to outrageous ideas violating the norms of the community. Is Harvard University really a "community" that requires ideological conformity? The First Baptist Church of Peoria is a community in that sense, with a common conception of God and how best to worship Him. Possibly Bob Jones University is a community. But no great university can long remain great if it attempts to enforce the equivalent of a religious creed on its members. What really holds the members of the Harvard "community" together is much more limited. It is simply a common commitment to pursue the truth through disciplined scholarship, and a faith that freedom of inquiry is the best means to arrive at the truth. I find the "provocative" remarks made by President Summers entirely consistent with that community norm.

I do have to admit that it is somewhat difficult to defend the academic freedom of a man who seems to have surrendered it again and again, in his ever more abject apologies for his NBER remarks. Nevertheless, President Summers is not the sole owner of the right of academic freedom, and he thus cannot surrender it for all of us.

In sum, I think that the central issue at stake today is academic freedom. If the critics of President Summers have their way, it will be a terrible blow to that freedom. Given the visibility of this university, it will be a signal to higher education in general that research on certain sensitive subjects should only be undertaken by those who already know the answers and are prepared to suppress any discoveries that do not fit with the conventional wisdom. Today, the sensitive subject is gender disparities in the science, but the list of forbidden topics will undoubtedly expand over time. It is astonishing that this could happen at a great university whose motto is Veritas.

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Arnold Shcherban - 3/31/2005

Thanks Dylan,

Not only and not as much quantitative predominance of men in Mathematics and Physics, as their qualitative (their input in fundamental principles and developments of those sciences even over the latest decades, when the discrimination against women in sciences was rendered practically non-existant) overwhelming predominance.

Dylan Sherlock - 3/31/2005

Totally true Arnold.

Political correctness stands at the heart of this controversy. What Summers said was hardly bigoted or prejudiced... such terms require a prejudgement. If you actually read (or heard) what Summers said about women you would know that he was not making a judgement, just an observation on data... data that indicated that there was a predominence on men in some sciences.

The response against Summers has been motivated by vitriol and irrationality. People have jumped on a couple words out of context to try and bring down Proffesor Summers.

Just remeber that name too, Proffesor. If you have have a PhD and you're doing a purely academic talk regardless of whether or not you teach or whether or not you're an administrator you're covered by academic freedom, because you're in the capactity of an academic, not an administrator.

It is intriguing how this incident is revealing what a shallow interpretation of academic freedom some people have.

Academic freedom --- for some people.

Arnold Shcherban - 3/29/2005

The essence of the practical controversy: the attack onto
academic freedom was effectively buried under the rhetorical technicalities on this board.
The statement of Summers was not only totally legitimate,
but academically/evidentially sound and if someone has doubts on this account I can PROVE it, based on historical evidence, though not - on political correctness!

N. Friedman - 3/26/2005


The problem with the Summers affair is not whether to extend academic freedom to administration. The issue is the rendering of the academy into an instrument of a form of political orthodoxy in order to advance internal office politics. That, after all, is what the Summers dispute uncovered.

Recall, the affair started when an administrator, President Summers, stated a contraversial view about women in the sciences. Such view was allegedly taken as an affront to women because the position of women in the academy is, evidently, a sore spot for some women. [note: I do not quibble with the notion that woman are discriminated against in the academy as it may well be true. However, it has next to nothing to do with the dispute.] The one thing that can be said for sure is that those who object to Summers disagree with the politics of what he said.

Recall also that there have been statements ever since that what Summers claims is scientifically false. However, if the only issue were his scientific ability, no one would say "Boo" since the matter is, as a question of science, a question of science and, as you note, Summers is not a professor so his views on matters of science are irrelevant anyway. It is the alleged political implications of his statements which led people to attack his science.

Moreover, the attacks on his science are not particularly scientific as there are insufficient facts to assert, in the manner it is being asserted, that he is wrong. In fact, there is insufficient science for anyone to make any claim, one way or the other, about the details of the working of the human brain, much less possible subtle differences between the brains of men or women. The science is, on the best interpretation, in its infancy and surely the scientists who said Summers is wrong know that full well. But, science does not matter in this dispute, in any event, because it is not about science or scientific freedom or anything of the sort.

The issue that, on the surface, drives the contraversy, is politics.

That, however, is layer one. Layer two is that Summers was evidently hired to make changes at Harvard. Such changes are not much liked, if the news reports are correct, by academicians.

So, in fact, the allegation that Summers made a political faux paux is likely a smoke shield. The real issue is that the agenda of the academicians and administration clash.

In such a contraversy, the use of a cover story is useful. Such, after all, was also the issue for the office of the grand inquisition. Failure to submit to orthodoxy. That, in a word, is what is occuring in the academy where college professors, lacking all manner of honesty and descency, push their own private interests as if backed by science and those believing in academic freedom and asserted protection of women academics.

Those involved in condemning Summers frankly deserve to lose their tenure for abusing their academic freedom in order to advance their own personal office politics agendas. To me, they are the true descendants of the inquisition.

Peter N. Kirstein - 3/26/2005

I would not implicitly support extension of academic freedom.

John H. Lederer - 3/26/2005

The definition of a principle that was an important part of the Enlightment, given substance by Frederick the Great, is not wholly encompassed by assertion that it is defined by an association of university professors as applying to professors.

There are three players here -- the faculty, the university as an institution, and the public/government/church. Academic fredom certainly has application between the institution and the public/government/church. I would suggest that it also has application between the faculty and the institution.

Academic freedom is not an end, but a tool to an end. What we are trying to obtain the benefits of is the idea that society is best served when there is freedom to logically pursue all ideas and all facts. That benefit can be as easily thwarted by a closed minded faculty that constrains the institution as it can be by a closed minded government.

That appears to be what has occurred here, just as the scholar Qualiiers joined the theological ones in determining Galileo's ideas to be absurd and heretical.

Sam Robin Roberts - 3/25/2005

Thank you for your confirmation Mr. Kirstein. However I would disagree with what seems to be your implicit support for extending this protection to administrators in the interests of garnering their support. I view academic freedom not as an absolute moral good, but a necessary aspect of the mertonian norms of productive scientific practice. Administrators -- as administrators -- are not engaged in this practice. Their role, as I argued, is innately ideological and inseperable from waves of social contestation. To allow Marxists and Catholics alike a space to advance their views is good for scholarship as a whole. In the real world of limited spaces, the ratio of Marxists to Catholics to Bell Curve authors to Social Constructionists to Milton specialists is a question that can only be decided on ideological criteria, and that process of selection takes place in a realm utterly distinct from that of scholarly debate. The rules of persuasion end were true power begins.

Sam Robin Roberts - 3/25/2005

N. Friedman - 3/25/2005


I agree.

Oscar Chamberlain - 3/25/2005

"N." (If you would rather not be called by your first initial, please let me know.)

You make an interesting assertion: "When someone shouts "It's a matter of principle, not money" you can bet your life on the likelihood that the only principle in issue is money."

If that is a universal, then it should be applied to Summers as well. For instance, one could ask, "Is there an economic gain to be made by abandoning attempts at improving gender equity in math and the hard sciences?"

N. Friedman - 3/25/2005


Mr. Summers' statement against the Israel divestment petition - a perverse and outrageous petition pushed by bigots of the worst antisemitic stripe and replacement Palestinianism - was an act of great moral courage for which he should be celebrated by any and all persons who believe in freedom. He was quite correct to note that the peition was antisemitic, if not in motivation (although it was also antisemitic in motivation), then in effective result.

One need only look at what is happening in Europe where the alleged distinction among anti-Zionism, Palestinianism and antisemitism has broken down entirely so that the rhetoric has become filled with traditional antisemitic venom. As a result, Jews cannot even walk down the street wearing yarmulkes or magen davids without serious risk of bodily harm.

Which is to say, an atmosphere akin to the Dreyfuss affair has been recreated, with most of the violence coming from Muslim immigrants but with intellectual cover, which allows such violence to be largely ignored, coming from Left and Right wing - but, in fact, mostly Left wing - antisemites.

It is also worth noting that the origins of eliminationist antisemitism are, in fact, tied directly to anti-Zionism. Consider that the actual author of the work that ultimately became the Protocols of the Elders of Zion wrote his screed in order to combat a proto-zionist movement. As Nietzsche noted long ago:

Incidentally, the whole problem of the Jews exists only in nation states, for here their energy and higher intelligence, their accumulated capital of spirit and will, gathered from generation to generation through a long schooling in suffering, must become so preponderant as to arouse mass envy and hatred. In almost all contemporary nations, therefore—in direct proportion to the degree to which they act up nationalistically—the literary obscenity is spreading of leading the Jews to slaughter as scapegoats of every conceivable public and internal misfortune. [emphasis added]

What is peverse is the left's rejection of its own once pro-Israel stance in favor of a cause which is genocidal in intention, namely, the cause of the Palestinian Arabs to rid Israel of Jews.

None of this is intended to suggest that criticism of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians is off limits or that discussion of the specific boundaries of Israel is off limits. However, the notion that Israel should be shunned but not Sudan (20 million Christians and animists killed in a Jihad that began in 1983) and a new war between sects of Muslims resulting in 18,000 deaths per month is a joke that speaks to the moral bankruptcy of anyone who singles out Israel. Such singling out of Israel as the world's boogeyman is, in fact, antisemitic in both intent and result.

Peter N. Kirstein - 3/25/2005

1) Academic freedom does not encompass administrators. Mr Roberts is correct on that score. None of the literature I have seen, and I have surveyed quite a bit, has ever extended it formally to administrators. The AAUP 1940 Statement does not encompass administrators as having academic freedom protection.

2) Presidents tend to be rather risk averse in articulating controversial viewpoints and one may be concerned about Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences reluctance to encourage that. I do share New York Times op-ed columnist Maureen Dowd's characterisation of Mr Summers as a "goofball" and I would certainly condemn vigorously, but NOT sanction, his views on women in science and engineering as well as his perverse conflation of criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.

3)I have often felt one of the reasons various university presidents are frequently unwilling to assert academic freedom protection for the professorate is because they do not have it themselves and are not professionally or emotionally attached to this fundamental prerequisite for the pursuit of knowledge.

mark safranski - 3/25/2005


The appropriate response to the statements of Lawrence Summers was what you have just done here - reasoned criticism of his position - rather than an attempt to intimidate those who might raise controversial views into remaining silent in the future. The vote at Harvard was about controlling the parameters of legitimate debate and who would exercise that control - not about some remarks made at a speech.

Your concern that scientific findings might be misused or incorrectly extrapolated to discriminate against a class of people is a valid one. Shutting down discussions on the evidence of gender differences in brain structure or processing is not the route to go to alleviate those concerns.

N. Friedman - 3/25/2005


The most obvious thing which comes to mind in the Summers case is office politics. Summers' agenda and the agenda of his detractors probably collide.

Stated a bit differently: only a person with a pre-set agenda would walk out of the room from the sort of speculation about men and women which Summers presented. And only people with an agenda would fight him over a matter of speculation. Which is to say, it is unimaginable that his speech is the real issue.

Mankind is only at the stage of educated guesswork regarding the details of the brain much less the differences between the brains of men and women. As such, when you write: "His remarks showed little understanding of the complex relationship between gender, society, and genetics or even of the gaps in our knowledge of that relationship," you go much too far. In fact, it is Summers' critics who are being unreasonable by asserting speculation as if it were religious dogma.

In any event, anyone who listens to the criticism of Summers knows immediation that the issue is office politics, not his speculation about science. And that becomes all the more clear - as if it were not clear on the surface - when you consider that the sin of speculating about the nature of the female brain is too trivial to merit a rebuke, much less a vote of no confidence.

When someone shouts "It's a matter of principle, not money" you can bet your life on the likelihood that the only principle in issue is money. Which is to say, those outraged by Summers' assertions are, in reality, most likely enraged about something else.

Dylan Sherlock - 3/24/2005

"Administrative posts are always and have always been ideological. To claim otherwise is dishonest."

You must win a lot of debates with that second line. "Any attempt to refute my argument should be viciously persecuted!" The rest is nonsensical. "Academic freedom is an issue that applies to scholars and scholarship"... so when the scholar who happens to be a university president presents scholarship in a forum for scholars... academic freedom does not apply to him.

Glad you've cleared that one up.

Oscar Chamberlain - 3/24/2005


The vote of "no confidence" may have gone too far. I don't know enough about Summers other actions as an administrator to judge. But you go too far in reducing the criticism of his comments to the rantings of "the authoritarian hard left."

His remarks showed little understanding of the complex relationship between gender, society, and genetics or even of the gaps in our knowledge of that relationship. More surprisingly, he showed no recognition of the number of times that "obvious" biological differences have proven a false barrier to women. One would think that an administrator would know that, at minimum.

This is what makes many people, myself included, suspect that he was raising a trial balloon and not simply indulging in candid thought. That is what makes plausible interpreting his comments as a call for easing off attempts to increase the number of women in the ranks of scientists and mathmeticians, whether or not the science supports that position.

And that was worth making public.

Sam Robin Roberts - 3/24/2005

Administrative posts are always and have always been ideological. To claim otherwise is dishonest. Academic freedom is an issue that applies to scholars and scholarship -- not to the innately political and ideological post of university president. Allowing these questions to be asked and deciding that one with certain views on these questions act as administrator are two completely distinct issues. Bertell Ollman lost his lawsuit against UMD on precisely this score. The right-wing can't have it one way this year and that way the next.

Arnold Shcherban - 3/24/2005


I'm sending this message out of a pity to you.
Be more private when making a fool out of yourself...
Nonsense is not a controversy. Amen!

mark safranski - 3/24/2005

I too say " Amen".

The no-confidence vote on Larry Summers was in reality a vote for prior restraint on discussing ideas found intolerable to the authoritarian hard left that sees scholarship as merely a continuation of politics by other means ( indeed, one of the faculty advocates of censuring Summers has been an apologist for African dictators).

Liberals, Conservatives, Moderates, Libertarians, free-thinking Marxists who don't wish to tow a party line all have an interest in condemning actions like that and in supporting academic freedom.


Bob Harper - 3/23/2005

I am politically conservative, but I join in saying AMEN. The 'no condfidence' motion by the Harvard faculty against Mr. Summers puts in grave doubt that institution's claim to greatness. I am hopeful that, years from now, the Harvard faculty wll consider this action just as shameful as the quotas imposed on Jews and other minorities in earler times.

Seth Cable Tubman - 3/23/2005

Amen! I so glad that SOMEONE FINALLY understands what it's all about! Not just for Larry Summers' sake, but for Ward Churchill's, and every other student's, instructor's, professor's, chair's, dean's, president's, and staff's. While I am politically liberal, I believe that everyone at a college/academic institution has a right to express his or her's opinion in any manner in which he or she chooses, providing he or she does not infringe on others' ability to do so. I don't mean that a person's remarks might not be offensive; but I believe that EVERYONE should be able to say anything they want, provided that their remarks do not immedeately AND substanially threaten public safety.