Today is an important non-day in academic history: the day the Harvard faculty was to have voted on a second no-confidence motion in the Matter of
The letter was gracious under the circumstances, but it was also a microcosm of the last year: Summers noted his accomplishments, apologized yet again (he could have pursued his goals “in wiser or more respectful ways”), and went gently into the night (to pursue “a period of sabbatical and reflection”).
It was, in other words, not a defense but a plea of nolo contendere.
Imagine if Summers had allowed today’s meeting to occur, and had used it to say something like this:
We have convened again to consider another motion of no-confidence in me, this time because of my replacement of the FAS dean and my association with a professor involved in our contract settlement with the federal government.
These charges would embarrass a Soviet court. Professor Kirby served as a presidential appointee, at the president’s pleasure. He will remain at Harvard and assume two new roles in his field: Director of the
Fairbank Centerfor East Asian Research, and a University-wide role guiding Harvard’s academic initiatives focused on . This is not an issue that required a meeting of the faculty. China
Professor Shleifer is an acknowledged star of our Economics Department and will remain at Harvard notwithstanding the contract settlement. Since he was my friend, I recused myself with respect to the legal proceedings involving him. Now I am charged with being his friend. This is not an issue that required a meeting of the faculty.
The proximate cause of today’s proceeding was rather the recent two-article series in The Crimson reporting that, at the time of the faculty’s last motion against me, I privately described the faculty’s concerns as “bullshit” that did not merit any apology at all.
To this charge I plead guilty, and since this may therefore be my last opportunity to address you in my current capacity, I want to use this occasion to acknowledge the series of mistakes I made over the past year.
I should never have apologized for raising a controversial hypothesis at an academic meeting and suggesting it be studied further. I should never have taken $50 million out of the University budget to fund a politically correct solution as a means of ending public debate about my words. I should never have established two committees, run by those who opposed further study, to implement their pre-conceived solutions.
I made other mistakes as well. When Professor West left Harvard, after publicizing a private conversation I had with him about the teaching responsibilities of Harvard’s most prestigious professors, he referred to me as “the Ariel
of American education.” I should have confirmed that Harvard is indeed not an appropriate place for a faculty member who argues in such terms. I should have applied the same standard to the preamble of Professor Matory’s original motion against me, with its coded reference to my support for Sharon . Israel
I made still other mistakes in my year-long effort to appease and apologize for actions I knew were not actually cause for blame. I now believe the effort itself was a mistake. It brought me, as Machiavelli might have predicted, neither respect nor love.
When I spoke at the academic conference, and when I spoke at Memorial Church regarding anti-Semitism, I noted on both occasions that I was speaking as an individual, not as the President of Harvard, although I obviously understood my status would lead to wider consideration of the issues I raised. But on both occasions I sought to encourage further study and debate, rather than wrap my comments in the authority of my office.
In contrast, the faculty today seeks to issue an official condemnation of me, by means of a vote. Many of you were radicals in the Sixties, proud of “speaking truth to power;” perhaps you believe you are still doing the same thing today.
In fact you are no longer agents of change but guardians of the status quo, jealous of your perquisites, unreflective of the views of your students or even your fellow faculties in the graduate schools, pursuing a political program of racial and gender representation but not intellectual diversity, intolerant of contrary views. This is not the mark of a great university.
I could have simply resigned rather than face this vote. But that would have been an ignominious end to an ignominious year. I thought it important to say these things to you face to face instead -- and for each of you to vote, because this is an important decision that transcends my personal situation.
A “yes” vote will mean a caretaker replacement, followed eventually by a permanent one who will devote herself primarily to fundraising, which will itself have been hurt by your vote. A “no” vote will confirm the agenda I brought to the University, as well as my moral authority to implement it. The whole academic world will be watching.
Sandwiched between a hostile segment of the FAS faculty and a wavering Harvard Corporation, Summers may have been in an impossible position, and it is unlikely any speech would have changed the result. But the one thing he could have done was to use the occasion to make a point.
Perhaps, after a period of sabbatical and reflection, he will.