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In Defense of Academic Freedom at Harvard By: Stephan Thernstrom
History News Network | Tuesday, March 29, 2005


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.

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


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