An Open Letter to Lawrence H. Summers

By Finn, Chester B., Jr. | Policy Review, June-July 2002 | Go to article overview
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An Open Letter to Lawrence H. Summers

Finn, Chester B., Jr., Policy Review

Dear Larry

YOU BEGAN YOUR HARVARD PRESIDENCY with promising hints that you might reverse the intellectual, moral, and political drift of America's most prestigious campus and thus bring a much-needed example of principled leadership to higher education in general. But as we both know, the reform spirit does not sit easily with the modern university. You have already been sharply challenged and harshly criticized. A lot depends on whether you stand up to it or give in. Giving in is, of course, what most people expect.

Yes, I'm a disgruntled alumnus, much rankled by Harvard's three-decade slide toward political correctness, neo-racialism, and mediocrity. Since the late Nathan Pusey stepped down as president -- after being mau-maued by unruly students and forsaken by much of the professoriate -- your predecessors in Massachusetts Hall have been appeasers, pacifiers, and fundraisers, not education visionaries or principled leaders.

When you arrived -- former wunderkind economist with plenty of brains, a reputation for feistiness, and solid experience in Washington-style politics -- you made the right noises. Your inaugural address on October 1 2 was not the usual porridge. You pledged Harvard to pursue the truth "first and last as an end in itself." In Pusey's time, such a statement would not be worth remarking. But in today's academic environment -- where some research topics are taboo, some teachings are protested because their content makes people antsy, and some scholars don't get hired or tenured because their take on truth goes against the grain -- this is an important doctrine to reestablish.

You went further. You declared that "the university is open to all ideas, but it is committed to the skepticism that is the hallmark of education." Another commonplace in Pusey's day, perhaps, but bold defiance of current reality on many campuses, where some ideas are shunned entirely and others sanctified without critical examination.

You tweaked the pieties of political correctness: "Our special obligation is to seek ... not what is popular or ... conventionally believed, but what is right and in the deepest and most rigorous sense advances our understanding of the world."

You also asserted yourself on the quality of undergraduate education: "We must ... press them to the highest standards of intellectual excellence." Harvard, as you knew in October and as the world knows now, has a king-sized problem with its academic standards for students. But imagine "pressing" today's collegians, especially on an elite campus! It would, for most, be the first time anyone did anything but cosset, praise, and indulge them.

You took a swipe at relativism, the core doctrine of modern academic discourse. You averred that the "torch of truth" is borne "when we promote understanding -- not the soft understanding that glides over questions of right and wrong, but the hard-won comprehension that the threat before us demands." The notion of "right and wrong" has not been welcome in the 02138 zip code for a long time.

You even tipped your hat to patriotism, though many in your audience surely gulped. No, you did not use the P-word, but, speaking a month after the September 11 attacks, you approvingly quoted FDR'S statement that "It is the part of Harvard and America to stand for the freedom of the human mind." Not Harvard in opposition to America -- the standard post-Vietnam formula -- but Harvard in league with America, both supporting freedom. And you said something else: You spoke of "honor[ing] those who defend our freedom." It's been ages since Harvard did any honest honoring of men and women in uniform.

What you didn't say was important, too. Though you spoke earnestly of inclusiveness and diversity, you never used the phrase "affirmative action, an omission swiftly noted by the scrutinizers of politico-academic tea leaves.

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An Open Letter to Lawrence H. Summers


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