[First published in the September 2006 issue of Commentary, reprinted with permission].
Harvard University has been much in the public eye in recent years, especially during the brief but eventful presidency (2001-2006) of Lawrence Summers. Two well-known law professors were accused of misusing the words of others in books they had written, and a famous professor of economics was charged by the U.S. government with fraud while working on a Harvard project. In the first case, a university committee decided that the acts fell short of plagiarism but amounted to a scholarly transgression, and the professors were compelled to apologize. In the second, the university took no action against the professor involved, but the government won its case and Harvard had to repay $26.5 million.
More famous than either of these incidents were those involving Summers himself. In one, he tried to encourage a well-known member of the Harvard faculty to channel his energies from rap music and stumping for presidential candidates into more scholarly activities; outraged, the professor left for another citadel of learning. No less newsworthy was Summers’s raising of the painful issue of anti-Semitism on college campuses, including Harvard itself. A couple of years later, in a luncheon speech, he indulged in some analytical musings on why so few females have become outstanding scientists. For daring to address this last issue in particular, he stirred up a wasp’s nest of feminist fury, to which he responded first with futile attempts to explain himself and then with a failed effort to buy off his attackers. Thanks to these and other perceived transgressions of the unspoken code of presidential conduct, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences hit him in March 2005 with a vote of no-confidence, and not long afterward he was forced to announce his resignation.