Reader Tony O'Rourke, a law student at Columbia, raises an issue noted by some other correspondents:
Since you've used your blog to raise awareness concerning the serious threats to academic freedom that are manifested by the attacks on Churchill at Colorado and Massad at Columbia, your silence on the Summers issue surprises me.
I feel though the position of the left (with which I proudly affiliate) on these matters is seriously undermined by the McCarthyist treatment of Summers resulting from his comments on women in the sciences. I would hope that balanced thinkers could step back from this situation and realize its similarities to the politically-motivated hack jobs against Columbia's Mid-East department and Churchill. If you agree, it would be a credit to your blog to raise the matter.
Is there really a comparable academic freedom issue in the Summers case, let alone one that rises to the level of McCarthyism?
Let's pause a moment to recall the basic facts.
(1) Larry Summers, President of Harvard, suggested that perhaps there are so few women in science and math because they are intellectually ill-equipped by nature. An uproar ensued, and, predictably enough, some on the right objected: it is just an hypothesis, surely it can be discussed and studied in universities!
(2) Alas, it turns out that no one was objecting to research being done on the hypothesis. They objected, rather, to the chief administrator of a research university--a man with no scholarly expertise in the area (as in none)--floating an hypothesis potentially damaging to women for which there is, at present, no well-confirmed scientific support (as in none).
(3) Let us be clear: everyone knows--who disputes it?--that there are biological differences between men and women, and that some of these are causally connected to cognitive and other differences. But there is no scientific evidence supporting the hypothesis that these differences explain the dearth of women in the sciences, which is the hypothesis at issue. (If there is such evidence, let someone name it, show the peer-refereed journals in which it appeared, and the other peer-refereed articles re-confirming those results.) In fact, there is research supporting rather different explanations for the dearth of women in math and the sciences.
(4) Understandably, then, it is upsetting and alarming when the President of Harvard, who has no scholarly competence in the relevant area, speculates, without evidence, about the biological basis for the small number of women in the sciences--and does so at a time when some are worried that the dearth of women at Harvard has something to do with discrimination (and when the neighboring, and also rather good, university down the road, MIT, concluded, after an empirical study, that the explanation there was discrimination).
Larry Summers is a man of considerable professional accomplishments and, not unrelatedly, he can be arrogant and confrontational. He is also, of course, an economist, and economists often seem to have a limitless appetite for pseudo-scientific hypotheses. Both traits came together on this occasion in a rather unfortunate way, and he has correctly been lambasted for his ignorant over-reaching of the actual empirical evidence. But does any of this implicate academic freedom?
First, academic freedom does not encompass freedom from criticism: this was true in the Churchill case (as we have seen) and it is true in the Summers case.
Second, academic freedom does not protect one's right to particular administrative appointments, whether it is Chair of Ethnic Studies or President of a university. As Eugene Volokh (Law, UCLA) noted in connection with the Churchill case:
[T]here is no reason that the University had to keep [Churchill] as Chair of his department, had he not resigned that post. The chairmanship of a department is an administrative post; while a professor's job is to publish his own work and his own views, the chair's job is to advance the academic mission of the university....See Jeffries v. Harleston (2nd Cir. 1995), which sensibly draws this distinction.
If the University concludes that keeping a person such as this as the administrative face of the department will cast the department and the university into disrepute, it can properly remove him as chair, while retaining his right to say whatever incendiary things he likes as professor. And of course I'd say the same as to department chairs who said things I liked: A university should have fairly broad authority to strip them of their chairmanship, though not of their posts.
The same points apply in the Summers case.
Third, academic freedom would protect an economist's, or even a real scientist's, right to speculate about the biological explanations for the dearth of women in certain fields, in the sense that it would protect him from retaliation in the form of loss of his job or loss of perquisites connected to that job. But there has been no suggestion in the Summers case that he should lose his tenured position in the Economics Department or lose any of his perquisites related to that job.
It thus strikes me as utterly incredible that anyone would compare the criticism of Summers to the Churchill case, let alone to McCarthyism.
Richard Posner aptly remarked:
Were Summers an expert on the reasons for gender-related occupational patterns, and as a result had special insight into the issue of women’s lack of proportional representation in science careers, there might have been a real cost in his failing to speak to the issue. However, since he is not an expert in this area, there would have been no great loss to human knowledge had he kept silent and let the experts engage with the issue....
So the benefit of Summers’s speaking out was small. The cost would have been small, too—were he not the highly visible president of the nation’s most famous university. For as a practical matter, chief executive officers do not enjoy freedom of speech. A CEO is the fiduciary of his organization, and his duty is to speak publicly only in ways that are helpful to the organization. Not that he should lie; but he must avoid discussing matters as to which his honestly stated views would harm the organization. (Judges also lack complete freedom of speech; as I mentioned in our introductory blog posting, I am not permitted to comment publicly on any pending or impending court case.) Summers must think that his remarks did harm the university, as otherwise he would not have apologized—for he apologized not for what he said, but for saying it.
Unfortunately, in a right-wing country like the United States, most of the serious attacks on academic freedom--i.e., the ones in which people are threatened with losing their jobs--are directed at those on the left: this was true in the 1950s, and it is true today. The Governor of California didn't call for John Yoo to be fired for his views on torture, but the Governor of Colorado singled out Ward Churchill for dismissal, and a U.S. Congressman did the same with Joseph Massad at Columbia. The Fox Propaganda Network comes to the defense of an economist who offends students with his remarks on homosexuality, but that same Network leads the charge against a critic of U.S. foreign policy. It would help if people who believe in the First Amendment and academic freedom had some sense of proportion in these cases.
Criticizing someone for his views is not the same as calling for his head, or his job, or his livelihood. At the end of the day, the worst thing that will happen to Larry Summers is he won't be President of Harvard, and he'll go back to being a tenured professor of economics, if not at Harvard, then at any one of a dozen other top universities which will surely fall all over themselves to hire him. He can then opine as he pleases, secure in the knowledge that academic freedom will protect his right to do so.
Addendum: Even if academic freedom does not protect the right of the President of a university to mouth off as he wants, perhaps it should in some contexts? My colleague Kate Litvak wrote:
Academic conferences are the places for open debate and mutual learning. That’s where controversial and crazy ideas are aired and developed. Things said at those conferences must be protected from ideologues of all stripes. We must not treat remarks at academic conferences in the same way as we treat TV interviews, op-ed publications, or political rallies. If senior scholars are prevented from expressing controversial hypotheses at academic conferences for the fear of losing their administrative positions, this will jeopardize research by silencing top scholars who seek leadership roles, or else jeopardize research by placing in the positions of power only conformist politicos unburdened by the innate drive to seek the truth. While administrators should behave themselves during fund-raisers and public appearances, nothing should ever be a taboo at an academic conference, even for an administrator.
In this case, of course, it wasn't "ideologues" who led the critics, it was actual scientists, such as the MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins. But putting that aside, perhaps there should be an exception for "academic conferences" that covers even administrators? That isn't part of the legal protections currently involved in academic freedom--for the reasons noted by Professor Volokh and Judge Posner--but perhaps it should be, for the reasons given by Professor Litvak. I doubt very much is lost by discouraging controversial researchers from seeking administrative positions (let them do their research instead!), and certainly nothing is lost by discouraging dilettantes from speculating about scientific questions. But even if one shared Professor Litvak's view that Larry Summers has a moral claim sounding in academic freedom to retain his administrative post, this would still be a far, far cry from the Churchill and Massad cases, where political figures are calling for their livelihoods, not just administrative postings, and they may yet get them. So while I have some sympathy for Professor Litvak's moral position, it still strikes me that those who would assimilate the Summers case to these others really display a startling lack of sense of proportion.