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A sad day for Harvard

March 15th, 2005 (thanks CIP for having corrected my typo) will be mentioned as a sad day in the history of Harvard University. The main point of the FAS faculty meeting in the Loeb Drama Center was a largely symbolic no-confidence vote proposed by Prof. Lorand Latory. It passed by a healthy margin 218:185; eighteen professors abstained. The less radical but equally sick resolution composed by Prof. Theda Skočpol has passed by a huge margin, too (253:137).

Figure 1 (missing): Lawrence Summers surrounded by celebrating protesters and journalists.

Because I was afraid of this result, I voted for the motion to postpone the no-confidence vote indefinitely; unfortunately, this desperate attempt of Philip Kuhn (Asian Languages) to avoid a disaster did not pass. The previous blog article with 54+ links to texts supporting Lawrence Summers was here.

This slightly surprising result has occured despite a significant number of speakers with very powerful and very diverse arguments opposing the motions - speakers whose reasoning has topped the intellectual strength of the advocates of the resolutions, as far as I can say. It was not just Steve Pinker, our star psychologist who has unsuccessfully tried to explain everyone that the statistical distributions are derived via research and papers, not by votes, and the right-wingers Ruth Wisse and Stephen Thernstrom who offered their arguments. Some economists followed, although their speeches were not quite perfect from a formal viewpoint. As another speaker has pointed out, the historians will look at the FAS faculty today as an example of another era of McCarthyism where the enemy was not in the government: it was within which is much more worrisome.

Most of the faculty decided to support the misguided declarations based on a flawed reasoning; the intent to divide the faculty and suppress everyone who has a different opinion; a disrespect to the free inquiry and the academic search for the truth; a chaotic approach to the management; an ordinary human misunderstanding. I am sure that many of those who supported the motion will think that their dogmas have been declared universally true. But they have not. The truth (i.e. VERITAS from Harvard's logo) does not really care about the confused opinions of a few (namely two) hundreds of colleagues of ours, and I hope that the Harvard Corporation cares just an infinitesimal bit more.

The main thing that this vote has proved to me is that some of the politically correct people won't hesitate to use almost any tools to achieve their goals and to threaten those who disagree with them, and the only way how they stop before doing something really unwelcome is that someone else will stop them. It won't happen automatically, I am afraid.

As another speaker has pointed out, this symbolic vote was not really about Lawrence Summers who is an extremely bright and kind of successful guy anyway - and who will not get lost: it was about the professors of FAS themselves and they have failed miserably. No doubt, most of the votes supporting the shameful declarations came from humanities and social sciences - especially the people who think that they can determine the scientific truth by a vote (and by having a couple of politically powerful friends) and people who are not even wrong. Those who believe that the objective truth (and objective science) cannot exist and all opinions reflect the political power - and the people who are living their lives trying to prove this point.

Once the media informed about the sad news, Harvard immediately lost some donations, for example from this guy. Most likely, others will follow. And let me emphasize that I am not happy at all about it - especially because Summers will be blamed even for these things. Others have said, for example,

  • Summers told the truth when he knew damn good and well at Harvard only the current pravda is permitted to be spoken. Fortunately, those of us in the real world know what Harvard is all about and can judge this ridiculous action accordingly. (Jeff Naylor)
  • What kind of a man supports the presidency of Babangida but not that of Summers? [Mr. Matory.] Not anyone that I’d want educating my children. (Richard Bennett)

James Brown and independently The Big Trunk compared the faculty meeting to the trial with Socrates. James Joyner also appreciates Summers, and is sad that Skočpol, a "legendary figure in comparative political science", joined this mess. Imperial Requiem is also bothered by the news. Dave Gwydion's informer who attended the meeting adds some details. Glenn Reynolds from the ultra-popular blog informs that "conservatives chortle" and quotes Stanley Kurtz who says:

  • I think the vote of no confidence in Lawrence Summers is a wonderful thing. Harvard continues to discredit itself with the American public. The faculty is trapped. If Summers resigns, this extraordinary example of political correctness will come back to haunt Harvard, and the entire academy, for years. But if Summers hangs on, the faculty itself will have been humiliated–checked by the very fact of public scrutiny. Either way, Harvard is tearing itself apart. So long as the public simply writes of the academy, the mice can play. But the intense public scrutiny in this case puts the captains of political correctness into a no-win situation. Like the closely watched Susan Estrich fiasco, this battle is doing lasting damage to the cultural left. As they say, sunlight is the best disinfectant.

Reynolds adds:

  • Summers is an awfully smart man. Could this have been his plan all along?

Well, guys, I am sure that you may have a lot of fun if you have nothing to do with Harvard today (yes, I know that Stanley Kurtz is both an alumnus as well as a former Harvard professor, greetings!) and if you view Harvard as a uniform body of self-described politically correct communist feminist intellectuals. Aren't you also forgetting about the 185 people who voted against the resolutions?

John Lott says:

  • It shows just how far out of it academia is when they view even a liberal democrat such as Larry Summers as unacceptable.

Nathaniel Ward describes the act as follows:

  • In a shocking display of political correctness, the Harvard faculty has voted a lack of confidence in President Larry Summers. The move is not entirely "unexpected," as the Harvard Crimson called it, but it is silly and petty.

The number of articles upset about the vote is just too large, so let me pick a few more random ones:

  • Trucker's corner not only calls the vote "idiotic" but it also mentions some not completely flattering memoirs.
  • Also, Justin Appletonian says that something is gravely wrong.
  • Florida pilot says that PC wolves on the prowl take on one of their own.
  • Brad from Lips Brothers is convinced that he must be missing something because he can't understand how could the statements on genders be the reason.
  • Scared Monkeys salute me and 184 of my soulmates. ;-)
  • The Armchair genius finds the comparison of the votes related to Summers and Churchill humorous, and calls Harvard "the bastion of regulated expression".
  • Andi's World calls "stop the madness" and she thinks that Harvard needs testosterone.
  • Brian Larson says that Summers needs a blog.
  • Joe Gandelman, the moderate voice, talks about "PC hell at Harvard".
  • Moon over Pitsburgh argues that suppressing free speech is against what this country should be all about.
  • Neil Boortz describes the Larry Summers jihad.
Will from Houston translates the second resolution by Prof. Skocpol as follows:
  • We, the Enlightened Few in the Holy Faculty of Arts and Sciences, condemn Mr. Lawrence Summers for engaging in improper mental exercises such as logical thought and noncompliance with Received Progressive Widsom. We hope that, in the future, Mr. Summers will learn his place and not pretend that Harvard University tolerates such heresy.
David Limbaugh writes about the "left's thought gulag" and writes
  • It's time we call political correctness what it is: a liberal code of thought, speech and conduct.

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snail feedback (24) :

reader Arun said...

It is the Ides of March.

Well, I hope you're not too sad to help me with a scientific argument.

reader TripleIntegral said...

Sorry to hear this..but I told you so.
I think we will see my final prediction come true later this week. It's a shame.

reader Anonymous said...

Lubos, all of you non-commie chaps at Harvard are probably too sissy for the job. You should be fighting with this PC stuff more intensely. Anyway, thank you for a nice article.

reader Jille said...

A sad day indeed. Yet, this whole kerfluffle has revealed better than anything else the capture of the academy by the politically correct.

If you can't explore various theories in a private meeting at a university, what then is its purpose?

reader Anonymous said...

This event confirms why I have never given a dime to Harvard and never will. The ironic thing is that the reason for the absence of contributions has been the ridiculousness of the law faculty, and from what I have read they support Summers. No matter.

Anon Law '91

reader Anonymous said...

By the way, I couldn't tell if you were tenured, but if you aren't, I would HIGHLY recommend deleting these posts. You're colleagues in the physics department may not have completely closed their minds with PC garbage, but I'd bet the administrators and bureacratic hacks who determine your budget and hiring have. Seriously, the reason the faculty's fascists called that vote was to tell free thinkers that their ideas are not welcome at Harvard. It may not be a good idea to condemn their witch hunt while they still have a chance to hurt you and make another example.

If you still feel strongly about it (duh), open an anonymous Blogspot account and repost your stuff under a fake name. Anonymity may even help make your point on Harvard's suppression of faculty speech more forcefully. Let the folks who've already linked you know that the new account is really you, and they'll probably link you again. You can get the word out, but you shouldn't have to risk your career to do so.

Unfortunately, recent events make it clear to me that employees of Harvard University do not have the freedom of speech.

reader The Tiger said...

Professor Motl, as an incoming master's student at Harvard, I salute you. Blogging openly as an untenured prof is very brave, especially about matters such as these.

reader PacRim Jim said...

Once again, class, knowledge is not wisdom; intelligence is not common sense.

reader PacRim Jim said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

reader Old Dad said...

Prof. Motl:

Keep up the good fight. It's appropriate that the lynch mob met in your Drama center. What a bunch of hysterical drama queens.

Various commenters have described the vote as silly, petty, ridiculous. It is.

I'd call it crazy, too. It's remarkable to consider that a significant portion of academics are simply nuts. We out among the great unwashed who send our children to you used to chuckle bemusedly at your antics. We bought the old Nutty Professor routine. But I think that Harvard and Ward Churchill (among others) have changed all that. We're simply not going to fund this nonsense.

Hang in there. Help is on the way. It's sad to say, but the grim reapeer will harvest this problem over the next 20 years.

reader BigLeeH said...

It is not clear to me that Stanley Kurtz is any more motivated by an animus towards Harvard as an institution, than Lebanese expatrates, who take delight in the publicity surrounding the problems of the Karami government, are with Lebanon as a nation. Perhaps, rather than ignoring the plight of the voices of reason at Harvard, Mr Kurtz is hoping for your eventual liberation.

reader Quantoken said...

Anonymous said:
"By the way, I couldn't tell if you were tenured, but if you aren't, I would HIGHLY recommend deleting these posts. ...your budget and hiring ... It may not be a good idea to condemn their witch hunt while they still have a chance to hurt you and make another example."

Let me help Lubos answer anonymous:
"be sure that your suggestions that my rights at Harvard should be limited are pretty despicable."

I am not trying to take a position in this Summer's controversy. But I find I like types of people like Lubos: Young, un-sophisticated, energetic, none-tenured, just hired by Harvard, being a foreigner on visitor visa, but still very brave and outspoken, and do not like to be anonymous.

I hope our society has more of the Lubos type of straight and outspoken people, and less of the type polite but dangerous. But frankly the reality is the survivability outlook perspective of such person does not look very good, in today's fiercely competitive academic environment.

I personally know some one who on one Friday worked with me as a colleague. And the next Monday he called in to appologize for not being able to come to work. Guess where he called from? From home? His home back in India!!! Got one letter from INS and the next thing he had to do is buy an air ticket to go home. That was before 9/11.


reader Anonymous said...

"I disagree with what you say but I 'll defend to death your right to say it" Harvard faculty version "I disagree with what you have to say AND I'll destroy you"

reader Anonymous said...

I'm glad, and yet alternatively sad, that Prof. Motl and people like him exist at Harvard. Glad that he exists; sad that it's at Harvard. We need you at Yale!

For those who fear for Prof. Motl's job security... um... I don't know how many brilliant physicists there are in the world, but I somehow suspect that someone who's good enough to get hired by Harvard is probably not worried about getting a job. My understanding is that it's quite different from being an academic in, say, English.

But in the event that Harvard does give him the boot, I pray that Prof. Motl consider my alma mater. Not that Yale Univ. these days is any less in the grips of the PC-lefty crowd, but it would be an honor to have someone like him there, and might get me to start contributing.

-The Sophist

reader Anonymous said...

Well the problem really isn't in the science departments (and to a lesser extent economics/political science/etc) but rather social sciences/humanities/the arts and the like.

I mean I see my colleagues on the other side of the isle, and half the time I simply wonder why some of them have tenure. I mean we all presumably went through the same hell, so it boggles the mind the amount of uninformed opinions some of these people have.

The Larry Summers affair is just another example of the science wars that is still simmering in academia

reader torbjorn said...

On this conflict and on free speach, please explain the logic behind postponing votes (indefinitely)!

I see two problems; it seems sort of anti democratic (not resolving the conflict with votes) so perhaps anti free speach, and anti active (not resolving the conflict)?!

This has always bothered me. Logically and democratically you should be able to propose such motions (being free speach and democratical), but at the same time they seem to be proposed to defeat the very system that makes them possible.

Am I missing something?

reader Anonymous said...

Actually, I'm glad they expressed no confidence in Summers. He obviously is prone to speaking about things he knows nothing about. How many of you think that Summers actually has read the sociological literature on performance of women in math and science? He doesn't have any personal experience with it, since economics is not a math or science subject and never will be. The people who actually have studied this disagree with him (note that Steven Pinker is not an expert on this field, merely a blowhard).

So basically, Summers, utilizing his priviliged position as president of Harvard, decided to spout off nonsense about something he doesn't understand. That's not something I want my university president to be doing.

It's also telling to me that this spouting off of nonsense gives him cover for the steadily decreasing offers of jobs to women in math and science under his tenure. Isn't it amazing how his nonsense science vindicates him? Wow!

Real science universities, like MIT, do studies on these issues, form committees, and actually think about them. And you know what, they find there are systematic barriers against women in math and science and work to correct them. It's important to remember that Summers isn't a real scientist. MIT is full of them, and they came to the opposite conclusion.

This doesn't even touch on the way Summers has managed to antagonize large numbers of the Harvard faculty with other decisions of his. Frankly, he's a piss-poor manager, and the board should get someone in there who can actually get something done and no longer expose Harvard in every newspaper with his uninformed rants.

reader Lumo said...

Dear torbjorn,

first our agreement: I was not thrilled by this bizarre idea to postpone the vote either, and the only reason why I modestly supported it was that it was clearly an attempt to choose the lesser evil.

When you talk about "democracy", you misunderstand Harvard's structure. At Harvard, the president only answers to the Harvard Corporation. In this sense, Harvard is no democracy. Especially because of the incident yesterday, I think it is the better of the two arrangements you proposed.

However, I disagree with your other interpretations of the act yesterday. The outrageous vote has definitely resolved no conflict whatsoever. If it did something like that, it has created and escalated a real conflict.

The vote has no direct, codified political consequences, and for many people like me it just showed that there are many colleagues of ours who are kind of evil and whom we must be very careful about.

Do they really want to send this signal that all scholars should be careful what they say and even what they think about, even in the privacy of their homes and private conferences? Do they really want to say that the Democrat Lawrence Summers is already unacceptable because he's not sufficiently left-wing? What about the right-wing people at Harvard? Should they wait every day until some hordes declare a lack of confidence in them? What is going on here?

I hope it's just a misunderstanding, or a joke. I will definitely never accept such a principle. And be sure that I am not the only one at Harvard.

Once again, there are no laws or rules that would imply consequences of the vote, so the only (unfortunate) conclusion is that most of the people in the Loeb Drama Center yesterday were seriously misguided. I respect that those 218 people are professors and often great minds, but I certainly don't think that they are reasonable enough to control the university. And in reality, they don't control it. Fortunately.

All the best

reader Anonymous said...

I was intrigued by the MIT study cited by 'anonymous', so I read it online. Read it here: (I assume that is the one referenced.) I haven't found the underlying "data" they used, but the study reads like junk, and has lowered my opinion of science at MIT. I guess I'm a biased male, but that study only proves to me that PC-mad idiots have invaded, infested, and conquered MIT as well.

reader torbjorn said...

Dear lumo,
I think we are in complete agreement on the evils of suppressing free speach.

I fully understand that Harvard is not a democratic process, nor should it be, but a motion and a vote is.

You are correct in that a vote may not resolve a conflict. However, it may push the conflict closer to resolution than postponing voting.

And of course you are correct in that in this singular case postponing is actually a vote for free speach.

reader torbjorn said...

Hmmm, I msut amend that: postponing is not a vote for free speach, but it isn't incompatible with it in this case.

reader Anonymous said...

Hey anonymous 7:07 pm,

I'm the one who originally posted about the MIT study. Why do you think it is "junk", precisely? You're going to have to do better than that, and hiding behind your perceptions of victimization won't cut it.

I'm surprised Lubos feels so strongly about this, when he's convinced that interviewing people who aren't experts on string theory is a bad way to discuss string theory. Oddly, he's perfectly willing to believe people who are not experts on sociology. Does he believe that sociology isn't serious?

My feeling is that Lubos just doesn't understand sociology, doesn't even realize he doesn't understand sociology, and is thus going on his innate prejudices about what he thinks the right answer should be.

I'd encourage Lubos, if he is really interested in this issue, to start reading papers and educate himself. He's find that the vast majority of the experts in the field disagree with Summers.

reader Edward Lee said...

The people who actually have studied this disagree with him (note that Steven Pinker is not an expert on this field, merely a blowhard).

Dear Anonymous,

Your functional definition of "blowhard" as "someone who doesn't agree with me" is intriguing and revolutionary. Kudos.

reader Anonymous said...

Hi Lubos (and all).

I am a woman and a graduate student in theoretical physics at Harvard. I don't think I am terribly PC or commie or feminist or any of these things; I'm just one of a very few women trying to make it in physics. Harvard is better than most places I've seen. But still--even here, being a woman is at times a difficult, isolating experience. Those of us who stay stay because we love science.

I cannot speak for other people. I don't want to be PC or anything else. I only want to tell you how I felt: I personally was really discouraged and saddened after hearing Larry Summers' comments, and after seeing so many people leap to his defense.

As I said, I cannot speak for anyone but myself--but I can personally attest to the fact that if I ever leave physics, it will not be because of a lack of inherent aptitude. It will be because I went into science to do physics, and it seems that so much energy goes into battling such attitudes instead.

I agree that Larry Summers has freedom of speech and should be allowed to say what he thinks. I respect, in fact, that he brought his biases to light instead of keeping them hidden.

But just as he has the right to express his opinion, I also have the right to express my dissent. Based on my personal experience I disagree with Larry Summers' theories. And I have no confidence in a president who says what he did.

Kudos to the faculty who voted against him, knowing that Fox News :) would condemn them as a bunch of PC Commies and femiNazis.

And I'm proud of you too, Lubos. I don't agree with all your opinions, but I'm glad you are brave enough and take the time to have this blog.