Tuesday, February 28, 2006

End of Summers' Days

I'm late to the commenting game--but for those of you so inclined, as I have been, to scour some of the major moderately liberal newspapers, magazines,(most of the time, a slight bit to the right of me, but I'm not as far left as to consider Mother Jones, Z Magazine, and Utne as my sole source of information so they're pretty close to me if they were consistently pro-choice, pro-affirmative action, and New Deal and Great Society progressive) and blogs out there, here's a roundup of the Summers' coverage.

Summers resigned rather than face a second no-confidence vote by the faculty, and there's reason to believe that the Harvard Corporation, which during the first no-confidence vote fully backed Summers, had this time urged him to resign. There is silly talk on the right about him being forced out by ultra-liberals (for some reason, The Weekly Standard loves Summers, forgetting that he's a moderate liberal who was treasury secretary under Clinton), and silly talk on the left about him being the arch-conservative who "bullied" Harvard faculty. My take: the man is a tactless ogre, but he had some really good ideas (and some extremely, horribly bad ones)--it's sad to see these ideas unimplemented, but good to see him go:

Summers' Resignation Speech

I have reluctantly concluded that the rifts between me and segments of the Arts and Sciences faculty make it infeasible for me to advance the agenda of renewal that I see as crucial to Harvard's future. I believe, therefore, that it is best for the University to have new leadership.

NY Times:

President of Harvard Resigns, Ending Stormy 5-Year Tenure

Since its founding in 1636, Harvard has ceded unusually strong power to its faculties over their different budgets, endowments and perquisites; the presidency, in turn, is designed to be a relatively weak office.But Dr. Summers enthusiastically filled the bully pulpit. He inveighed against grade inflation and demanded more rigor in teaching, two issues that came up in his private conversation in 2001 with Cornel West, then a professor of African and African-American studies. Dr. West said afterward that he felt insulted by Dr. Summers, and he soon left for Princeton University.

So what kind of changes did Larry Summers want? Here are some quotes from a 2003 profile of Summers by the NY Times (link unavailable):

"Summers has announced that he will extend the tenure review process. Previously, the university president's power to review -- and perhaps veto -- tenure decisions applied to only the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and a few other schools. The law school, which has made a series of what Summers calls ''idiosyncratic choices'' in the awarding of tenure, has put up the most resistance to this extension of presidential power. Summers has already trampled on several proposed appointments to the college, which of course only increases apprehension elsewhere."

But a main source of tension between Summers and the Arts and Letters faculty, besides his pugnacious and intemperate attitude (and impolitic remarks) were his comments attributing the gender gap in science and math to inherent biological differences between men and women (i.e. women are intellectually ill-equipped by nature): (dated Jan. 14, 2005)

There are three broad hypotheses about the sources of the very substantial disparities that this conference's papers document and have been documented before with respect to the presence of women in high-end scientific professions. One is what I would call the-I'll explain each of these in a few moments and comment on how important I think they are-the first is what I call the high-powered job hypothesis. The second is what I would call different availability of aptitude at the high end, and the third is what I would call different socialization and patterns of discrimination in a search. And in my own view, their importance probably ranks in exactly the order that I just described.

It does appear that on many, many different human attributes-height, weight, propensity for criminality, overall IQ, mathematical ability, scientific ability-there is relatively clear evidence that whatever the difference in means-which can be debated-there is a difference in the standard deviation, and variability of a male and a female population. And that is true with respect to attributes that are and are not plausibly, culturally determined.

If it was really the case that everybody was discriminating, there would be very substantial opportunities for a limited number of people who were not prepared to discriminate to assemble remarkable departments of high quality people at relatively limited cost simply by the act of their not discriminating, because of what it would mean for the pool that was available. And there are certainly examples of institutions that have focused on increasing their diversity to their substantial benefit, but if there was really a pervasive pattern of discrimination that was leaving an extraordinary number of high-quality potential candidates behind, one suspects that in the highly competitive academic marketplace, there would be more examples of institutions that succeeded substantially by working to fill the gap. And I think one sees relatively little evidence of that. So my best guess, to provoke you, of what's behind all of this is that the largest phenomenon, by far, is the general clash between people's legitimate family desires and employers' current desire for high power and high intensity, that in the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude, and that those considerations are reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination.

Of course we shouldn't let Summers off the hook for these ridiculous, and unwise remarks. Having rocked Employment Discrimination, I'm loathe to attribute any sort of "gap"--gender or racial in either direction--to a difference in intellectual capacity or mere self-selection that is not the result of socialization. If there is self-selection, e.g. women are more interested in the home furnishings department at Sears rather than the higher commission appliances department, then is that not a product of gendered socialization, employer expectations, and a (not unquiet) shuffling of the sexes by the HR department into one type of job over another? Are women even asked to apply for the appliances department or considered seriously when they do apply? There is in employment discrimination the idea of the "inexorable zero"--that when this figure occurs in employment statistics for a historically underrepresented group, there is no way to explain that figure other than by discrimination. There cannot be, in a given period of years, with a given number of women/minority applicants for a certain traditionally male/white job occupancy, zero women/minorities hired or promoted for that job without discrimination being a factor. There is no inexorable zero in science--but the figures are low enough to ask--why? There is plenty of research being done on this question in all academic fields--why is there a lower tenure rate for women? Why, when women or minorities enter academia, do they appear to be shuffled into the non-tenure track positions? Why are there fewer women bloggers? Why, why, why?! we shout at the indeterminate chasm of the gender/racial gap! I'm a critical race feminist--it is my scholarly inclination to question the tilted systems of privilege, faux-meritocracy, and white male hegemony rather than the individual applicant or the minority applicant pool. But whether you believe me or believe that blacks are just lazy, Mexicans are just dumb, women are too meek and Asians too passive, well, that's your choice. That's everyone's choice in an environment of academic freedom when such speech is generally addressed and made in a public fora. (which is why I support your right to give a race-baiting, race-hating speech against affirmative action or against the creation of a Palestinian state for "those terrorists" or an anti-Zionist speech against "those unlawful occupiers" but would feel differently if you said "I'm going to lynch you, n***er" to someone specifically) While I supported Summers' academic freedom to make his dumbass remarks, I didn't agree with him. They certainly demonstrated his lack of tact and political acumen--this in addition to his well-known reputation for being disdainful to faculty and just being an ogre in general. So I think I would have given him a no-confidence vote even though I believe he has the right (and were he just any academic, the responsibility) to make his crazy, stupid "provking" remarks--but as university president of one of the most prestigious universities in the world, he could be fired for all sorts of conduct that would normally be protected. For example, Deans and professors are often fired for having affairs with students--why? It's not like they're held to any higher moral standards in their human, private capacity--it's because in their professional capacity, we expect them to exercise greater care out of respect for their office. Out of respect for his office and the power he wields from that position, Summers should have exercised discretion--he's not just some "fringe academic"--he's the president of a university presiding over hundreds of academics, representing the institution to the world. You have your right to say many things, but while you can't be legally punished for controversial, impolitic remarks, you'll face some type of consequence some way or the other. That's what people don't understand about free speech--yes it's free, and yes, it's your right that can't be infringed upon by the government, but there are plenty, plenty of other consequences from speech--and every consequence brought by a private actor (community scorn, loss of position by a private employer) will have to be tolerated.

So a brief word about the Cornel West affair--I don't have the transcript, but the brouhaha started when Summers asked West, in a private interview, just what scholarship West was doing (besides the rap CD). Summers apparently wanted to 'personally review' West' scholarship on a periodic basis. Now, this sort of paternalism is really grating on any tenured faculty used to creating courses like "Literature and Decadence" (a real course, but it does sound weird, doesn't it?). But to a renowned professor of Afro-American studies, well, even I will say it exceeds the bounds of patronizing. That it was Afro-American studies didn't help either. I'm not disagreeing with Summers' desire to hold tenured faculty up to scholarship and teaching standards--but his treatment of West was extremely lacking in tact. I'm not saying "tiptoe 'round us colored people"--no, my argument is with respect to any academic, in any field. If we did a Bentham utility test for every course, scholarship, or "public intellectual" activity (op-ed, article, book, blog) every "experimental physics," every "liberal arts" course would be in trouble. Hell, this argument has led to the shut down of even long-standing disciplines and well-respected (but under-utilized) departments in subjects like linguistics.

I'm all for forcing students to have a solid general education--but let students go off the deep end too! In addition to my Bar courses, I took wonderful, "useless" seminar courses in Current Scholarship in Sexual Orientation and the Law , abstract theory courses like "Critical Race Theory" and "Advanced Critical Race Theory," and Asian American Jurisprudence. I would hope that my dean wouldn't question the faculty's desire to teach such courses that aren't Bar-applicable or even practice oriented (theory?! what's that?!) so long as the faculty kept up their committments to teach Bar courses. West is, however, a bit of a different case--I listen to him on Tavis Smiley, and I've read some of his work--let's just say I'm a bigger fan of John Hope Franklin, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Kwame Anthony Appiah. I admire West's politics and work on behalf of minorities, but as a philosopher (Princeton PhD, now teaching there) his work is remarkably shallow. Appiah is my pick for better scholarship.

Thus, while I support West and the discipline of Afro-American studies (and other interdisciplinary ethnic-studies concentrations), I wouldn't have begrudged Summers for any faculty's teaching committments--I just wouldn't act like an overseer. You can implement "standards" without "personally reviewing" someone's work like they're Uncle Tom, you know?

One clarification: I support inter-disciplinary studies in general--such as "literary journalism," "law and literature," "politics and society," etc.--but I'm unsure where I come out at the graduate level. Thus, while I support ethnic-studies departments, I'm a bit torn about whether I support the awarding of PhDs in such fields. I TA'd in Afro-American Studies and Chicano/a Studies, but was torn in my support for developing an entire graduate program for such studies. I mean, should you get a PhD in "law and literature"--or do you just get it in "literature" and do your coursework/dissertation in legal-themed works? I know the arguments for creating separate departments--the cognate fields never have the resources/institutional support, it is important to carve out a disciplinary niche in order to attain disciplinary credibility and respect. I have friends who are Ethnic Studies PhDs. But there is something in me that is unsure about creating an entire new discipline that's interdisciplinary, cobbled together from different departments. Granted, I am a critical race studies concentrator--but my degrees, law and post-law, are entirely located within the discipline of the law. Even as CRT borrowed some elements from critical theory, it was always legal in its focus. I know I should be arguing for the dismantling of departments, disciplines, and other forms of hierarchy and hegemony--but something old school in me still feels like there is a point to having rigorous programs in cognate disciplines. That Ethnic Studies students, like all sociologists, should take methods, for example. That law and lit people should take critical theory and be trained in textual analysis as well as constitutional law. See how weird it is being me? I'm a lefty, but there are some really strange, conservative impulses in me that I can't explain.

Which is why it's weird that there were some things I liked about Summers:

From The New Republic:

First, Summers wanted tenured professors to teach. And not just that; he wanted them to teach large undergraduate survey courses. Summers noticed what people have been noticing for a long time: Students at Harvard--and at other prestigious universities--often graduate without the kind of core knowledge that you'd expect from a good high school student. Instead, they meet Harvard's curricular requirements with a hodgepodge of arbitrary, esoteric classes that cohere into nothing at all. Summers wanted to change that, perhaps by making students take overview courses that gave them a general introduction to different disciplines. The problem is that those are exactly the kinds of courses Harvard professors don't want to teach. Most professors are specialists. They want to delve ever more deeply into their particular research areas. The more their teaching tracks that research, the easier their lives are. So they offer classes on obscure micro-topics. The last thing they want is to bone up on introductory material they forgot in graduate school. Summers, who made a point of teaching a freshman seminar himself, thought perhaps they should. And, for that, he was accused of not respecting the faculty.

Finally, Summers thought it was a problem that roughly 90 percent of Harvard seniors were graduating with honors. The Ivy League considers itself a bastion of meritocracy. But, as Summers understood, Harvard's shameless grade inflation mocks that pretense. By giving almost everyone very high grades, Harvard promotes the fiction that virtually all of its graduates are academic superstars--and obscures those who actually are.

Maybe it's from my position of being years away from being on the market and miles away from the tenure track, but I support high faculty standards. Right now, I'm still a student. And I remember, as a student, of being screwed over by faculty who didn't care about teaching. I also support general education survey courses, being a fan of that "liberal humanist education" of ye olden days. I hated grade inflation at my undergrad institution, where it was impossible for a 3.88 GPA to get even a cum laude because everyone's GPA was so high. So I actually liked Summers' overhauling of the tenure system, which is often inexplicably denied to truly promising junior faculty and awarded blindly to others.

And finally, an article by The New Republic about what this all means for the future of education:

Overspecialization breeds self-indulgent scholasticism. Too many scholars write for an audience of dozens (if that--a good friend of mine says he writes for six people), and far too few write for thousands, fewer still for millions. In a bygone era, the best intellectuals wrote for educated people generally, not for a handful of specialists. American universities are chock full of brilliant minds that keep their brilliance locked up in a closet, talking only to people in their small corner of the intellectual world. Graduate education and academic promotion standards push scholars to fine-tune their disciplines' methodologies. Broadening one's field of vision tends to be a bad career move.

Problem is, university faculty don't want to talk back to their bosses; they don't want to have bosses. And their preferences matter. The past 40 years have seen faculty take near-total control of leading universities. These institutions are democracies of a peculiar sort: Only a part of one constituency gets to vote. Two kinds of people teach in universities: those who invest in some combination of teaching students and writing scholarship (the best people invest in both), and those who go through the motions. Which group do you suppose is more likely to attend the meetings and write the memos and vote on the motions of no confidence? The correlation isn't perfect: There are great teachers and scholars who do invest in institutional governance, and thank God for them. Over time, though, general tendencies swamp individual variations, and the general tendency here is disastrous.

What say you, fellow aspiring academics around the net? Do you agree with the programs Summers was trying to implement regarding tenure overhaul, grade inflation, freshman survey courses, and faculty accountability? Are you all about getting tenure and then slacking off your teaching or scholarship, damn the freshmen who need some real larnin'? Are you all about having no accountability to either your institution, your president, or the mission of higher education? Do you agree with his treatment of Cornel West? Did it smack of Uncle Tom's Cabin to you, or was it all just a big misunderstanding? Should there be PhDs awarded in interdisciplinary fields, or is it too ad-hoc and mish-mash to be truly rigorous enough for a doctorate degree? Is it symbolically important to create new credentialed fields of interdisciplinary study to recognize the intellectual history of subordinated groups? If that can be accomplished without splintering universities into hundreds of departments, is that enough? Do you think intellectual capacity explains the gaps? What do you want to shout into the chasm?

Comments are always open! You can use them to abuse me for not blogging anything of substance for a while and then subjecting you to the pain of reading this long thing!