Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers is seemingly in a bind. It’s over the issue of how to respond to Cornel West, the high-profile, black professor and prominent member of Harvard’s Afro-American Studies Department.
West took umbrage at Summers’ questions about whether he had missed classes to campaign for Bill Bradley in the 2000 presidential campaign. In addition, Summers apparently had misgivings about the role, if any, of scholarship in West’s rappy recording of a CD of African American music. Moreover, Summers, a treasury secretary in the Clinton Administration, reportedly has not yet spoken out forcefully enough in favor of affirmative action and diversity.
Summers, in effect, has said that just because Harvard’s Afro-American Studies Department is a celebrated one, its top celebrity-scholar-author isn’t immune from scrutiny. It speaks volumes that this even has to be spoken.
There was an attempt to patch up the resultant “terrible misunderstanding,” according to an aide to Summers. To which West responded: “As much as I forgive, I will not forget.”
Forgive what? A president for doing something other than care-taking Harvard’s image?
Forget what? Being held accountable?
As a result of the carpet calling, West may leave Harvard and head to Princeton. West said his decision would depend, in part, on whether his colleagues in the Afro-American Studies Department were staying at Harvard.
A spokesman for Harvard now says, “Dr. Summers has made it clear that collectively and individually he holds the Afro-American Studies Department in high regard.”
C’mon, President Summers. Speak for yourself — and in so-doing speak for all those who know that university campuses, especially elite ones, are bastions of political correctness run amok.
Try saying something like this: “We wish Dr. West good luck at Princeton. We also wish all the best to those colleagues of his in the Afro-American Studies Department who are also certain to leave. That’s because we are closing the department.
“Legitimate courses in Afro-American studies will continue to be offered here at Harvard; indeed, they are appropriate on any American campus that gives more than lip service to meaningful diversity. But not a whole department. Do we really want to turn out graduates with a bachelor’s in blackness? The same principle, I should add, also applies to women’s studies and other ethnic or racial studies. Individual, academically authentic courses, yes; separatist, academic apartheid, no.
“We want legitimate, world-class, academic departments — buttressed by rigorous standards — not partisan, polemicized, faux scholarship, group-think, self-esteem citadels that serve only to buff a university’s bona fides as champions of ‘diversity.’
“Harvard will manage well without Dr. West and his colleagues, thank you. As for me, of course this will cost me my presidency, but it’s worth it.
“For now, however, I can live with myself knowing I’ve used the prestigious and influential forum that is the Harvard presidency to say what no one else in academia will. If the emperor has no clothes, I’m not pretending he’s dressed to the nines.”