Sunday, February 26, 2006

School's Out For Summers

So the end finally comes for Larry Summers, the soon to be ex-president of Harvard. The minimal, uncontested narrative is that after feuding with the faculty for just about all of his tenure as president, the allegedly coerced resignation of Dean William Kirby and the circumstances surrounding it catalyzed a collapse of support for Summers within the Harvard Corporation, rendering his position untenable.

Then there are the interpretations. The CW on why Summers finally got his presidential medal of freedom is nicely expressed by my colleague Matthew Gillum: "Summers' candor was his downfall." I.e., some combination of Harvard's institutional cowardice/paralysis and its oppressive PC leftism were fatally incompatible with a president who deigned to criticize Cornel West and suggest that men and women have irreducible biological differences.

The emerging anti-CW, on the other hand, has it that Summers isn't getting medaloffreedom'd for ideological reasons, but because he was foolish enough to instigate a power contest with the faculty, and predictably lost. Leading the contrarian charge is Matt Yglesias (Harvard '03), who writes:
You have, basically, a controversy over the administration of the University. Harvard has historically been a highly decentralized institution, and the President has had relatively little authority over the several faculties that together make up the University as a whole. Summers has been trying for years, in various ways, to increase the authority of his office and centralize the administration. One of the ways this has manifested itself has been an effort to force the faculties to pool their resources in order to pay for a big expansion into the Allston neighborhood across the river from Harvard Yard. This was a break with precedent, and the manner in which Summers wanted to do it was going to disadvantage the Arts and Sciences Faculty compared to other Faculties.
So you can see that Summers was putting himself in a somewhat precarious position -- taking on the financial interests of the most prestigious faculty at the University, and slighting the sentiments of the most important bloc of professors and alumni.
Now, I note the following not to imply any arguing in bad faith on Matt's part, but merely as an observation of fact: The losing-power-struggle explanation reflects much better on Harvard than the multiculti-feminazi explanation. If I were a Harvard student or alum, I'd certainly want it to be the case that Matt's explanation is true. (To be precise, the CW explanation is a synthesis of two distinct explanations; (a) that Summers was forced out simply for having the audacity to say controversial things; (b) that Summers was forced out because the content of his controversial statements ran strongly against the faculty's ideological orthodoxy. Even drawing that distinction, Harvard still comes off looking much better on the Yglesias interpretation than either the (a) or (b) versions of the CW.)

Unfortunately for those with some investment in Harvard's honor and good name -- I'm have a stake in neither, nor, despite my present setting, do I have anything against Harvard per se -- the Yglesias explanation is just obviously wrong. Or at least incomplete. As a philosophy student Matt is undoubtedly familiar with the distinction between necessary and sufficient conditions, and with the postulates of modal logic. Very well. In general, is simply contesting the Arts & Science faculty's hegemony sufficient to cause a Harvard president to lose his job? In particular, in the nearest possible world in which Summers' avoided controversy as assiduously as, say, Richard Levin, but still fought with the faculty over expansions and diverting revenue to the more technical/practical departments with which he was apparently allied, was Summers forced to resign? I think the answer to both questions is a resounding "no." What about the nearest possible world in which Summers periodically generated headlines by making comments that jibed nicely with the A&S faculty's (majority) convictions, e.g., claiming that gender-based disparities in university hiring patterns is attributable (at least largely) to pervasive lingering discrimination against women?

Is anyone -- hey Matt -- prepared to argue that Summers' would not have ingratiated himself with the faculty by making remarks like the foregoing? That the NYT op-ed page wouldn't have been more than happy to publish a piece by the president of the most prestigious university in America (not the best, the most prestigious, relax folks) railing against academic misogyny? That, had such an op-ed not gone on to explicitly link anti-female prejudice in academia to broader patterns of misogny throughout society, that a medium-sized cascade of articles and blog posts wouldn't have popped up damn near instantly highlighting precisely such a connection? That right-wing opinion pages and blogs wouldn't have responded by calling Summers a PC tool to varying degrees of analytic rigor? That a circle-jerk among lefty blogs wouldn't have ensued, alternating between reiterating Summers' points and calling him a hypocritical tool of the patriarchy for being in the position to rectify this injustice and choosing instead merely to desribe it? [He's not really in that position--ed. Shhh.--F. Anyway, can female bloggers have a circle-jerk? Well, it's something near enough--F.]

Is it not in fact the case -- speak now etc. etc. -- that in w, Summers* stands a good chance of succeeding in aggrandizing his* power and achieving his* reforms* for Harvard* through the unconscious good will he garnered by speakingtruthtopowerâ„¢, and by conciously couching his ambitions as projects aimed at leveling the playing field? [For those precious few among you who haven't read hundreds of pages of David Lewis and are therefore confused by the nomenclature, w is the possible world like @ (the actual world) in all respects except for some of the properties of the entity Summers*, who stands in the modal counterpart relation to Summers. Since Matt and I are philosophers, we find it useful to talk this way. A bit of symbolic logic follows, because, c'mon--ed.]

So here's a report of what happened (my apologies for my computer's or blogger's inability to represent the symbols correctly):
(1) Es@(W@ & A@ & Is@ & R@s & U@s & F@s)
There exist a s and a @ such that @ is the actual world, s in @, that s attempted reforms is true at @, that s made un-PC controversial remarks is true at s, and that s got fired is true at @.
Now the counterfactual propositions we have to evaluate:
(2) Es*w[Ww & Is*w & Cs*s & (Rws* -----> Fws*)]
There exist a s* and a w such that w is a possible world, s* is in w, s* is a counterpart of s, and if s* attempts reforms, s* gets fired.

(3) Es*w[Ww & Is*w & Cs*s & (Uws* -----> Fws*)]
There exist a s* and a w such that w is a possible world, s* is in w, s* is a counterpart of s, and if s* makes un-PC controversial remarks, s* gets fired.

(4) Es*w[Ww & Is*w & Cs*s & (Pws* -----> Fws*)]
There exist a s* and a w such that w is a possible world, s* is in w, s* is a counterpart of s, and if s* makes pro-PC controversial remarks, s* gets fired.

(5) Es*w[Ww & Is*w & Cs*s & ((Rws* & Pws*) -----> Fws*]
There exist a s* and a w such that w is a possible world, s* is in w, s* is a counterpart of s, and if s* (makes pro-PC controversial remarks and attempts reforms), s* gets fired.
So, here goes. (2) is false; Summer's doesn't get fired if all he does is try to increase funding for technical fields. (3) is false; it takes more than just offending PCdom to get fired. (4) is false; Summers obviously doesn't get fired for echoing lefty orthodoxy. (5) is false; Summers doesn't get fired if he enunciates PC prevailing wisdom and tangles with the arts and sciences faculty; on the contrary, he wins the support of faculty members who would have otherwised opposed his reforms in virtue of being the target of editorials in the Wall Street Journal and National Review.

In other words, there's an irreducible ideological element to this. Claiming otherwise is just wishing it away.

P.S. Summers was perfectly justified in criticizing Cornel West. And the campaign to brand him a misogynistic patriarch was variously ignorant and dishonest, but always bullshit.


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