Harvard flap prompts query: How free is campus speech?
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Summers's repeated apologies, in particular, angered many op-ed columnists who felt they were evidence of academic orthodoxy being enforced.Skip to next paragraph
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"It would be interesting to know what would have happened if Larry Summers, after the controversy first emerged, had called a press conference and said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, this is what the university is all about,' and stopped there. I think he would have been a national hero," says Charles Murray, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Mr. Murray caused a similar storm a decade ago when he co-wrote "The Bell Curve," suggesting that there might be innate differences among races regarding intelligence.
That idea of inequality, he says, is still one of the biggest taboos. "There's just a part of the dogma in the university that centers on equality as a good in and of itself, not just equality of outcome, but equality of the raw material. It's something we didn't really anticipate when we wrote 'The Bell Curve.' "
Evalyn Gates, a cosmologist at the University of Chicago, sees it differently. It's the not that the idea of studying innate differences is so offensive, she says, referring to the Summers's remarks. Rather it's that other, larger reasons exist for women's poor representation in scientific fields - documented gender bias both early on and within academia, and a culture that makes it hard to balance family life and work. Biological nature, she says, is "a red herring" compared to these issues of nurture.
In addition, there's the issue of who's making the comments. "If some researcher at a conference says he wants to study this possibility [of gender difference], that's fine," Dr. Gates says. "But the fact that the president of Harvard has said it I think has done damage."
The charge that universities are intolerant of ideas that clash with the accepted line of thinking has been around at least since the 1960s, and gained traction during the culture wars of the 1980s and '90s. Usually the complaints come from conservatives who consider academia too liberal.
One recent flash point involves bake sales at which items cost different amounts based on a student's race, used to protest affirmative-action policies, that several universities have banned.
Another hot topic is religion. A question du jour: Do universities have the right to refuse to allow religious clubs to require that members hold certain beliefs?
But demanding free speech, some academics point out, cuts both ways. "On the one hand, professors should be free to pursue whatever lines of inquiry they think academically sound," says Jonathan Knight, director of the American Association of University Professors' program on academic freedom and tenure. "But they had best be prepared to deal with the criticism, no matter how acid."
At Harvard, Summers has faced such criticism numerous times since he took the helm in 2001. He's angered some with remarks ranging from a rebuke of a celebrated black professor to praise of patriotism - a style that some call candor, and other see as evidence that he's insufficiently aware of the power of his words.
At the recent conference, for instance, he only suggested that gender difference be studied as a possible reason for women's absence in the sciences. "But the headlines say, 'Harvard president says men are better at science than women,' " says Gates, the University of Chicago professor. "That kind of phrase repeated over and over, especially when it reinforces an underlying concept people have already, can be extremely damaging."