If he needed any reminding, Harvard University President Lawrence Summers was just given a refresher course on the need to proceed with the greatest of caution - and tact - when it comes to race relations in academia.
It's still unclear whether threatened defections of some of the university's high-profile Afro-American Studies professors have been averted, but the row illustrates how much scrutiny the country's most prestigious universities are under when it comes to issues of affirmative action and diversity. And it signals the clout that African-American and other ethnic studies departments have gained after just a few decades of existence.
Over the years, Harvard has taken a leading role among elite institutions in promoting racial diversity. In a 1978 ruling, the US Supreme Court took the unusual step of singling out Harvard's race-sensitive admissions policy as a national model.
More recently, then-Harvard President Derek Bok co-authored "The Shape of the River" in 1998, which some black scholars call the best writing ever done on affirmative action.
But when Harvard appointed Dr. Summers this summer, a question quickly surfaced: Will he waver when it comes to supporting Harvard's longstanding commitment to diversity? An editorial in The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education shortly after his appointment said: "We have found little indication in [Summers'] background that the issues of affirmative action and racial diversity are at the top of his list of educational priorities."
The recent friction between Summers and the university's Afro-American Studies department can be traced to a conversation with Cornel West, one of the department's stars, last fall. Summers reportedly suggested to Professor West that various political activities and his recording of a CD were not the kind of scholarly pursuits Harvard liked to see its faculty engaging in. Summers is also said to have further offended West at that same meeting by speaking to him about grade inflation, a problem currently under study at the Cambridge, Mass., school.
Rumors began to circulate that West and some of his highly regarded colleagues were considering packing their bags and heading south to Princeton University in New Jersey, where West had been earlier in his career.
The immediate crisis seemed to pass when Summers issued a statement last week stressing the university's commitment to racial diversity and its support for the members of the Afro-American Studies department. Jesse Jackson, who had arrived in Cambridge on New Year's Day to call for a clarification from Summers along these lines, appeared satisfied.
But West may not yet be satisfied that his academic work is respected. In an interview with National Public Radio that aired yesterday, West said that in his 26-year teaching career he had never felt as "attacked and insulted" as he did after the conversation with Summers last fall. West confirmed that if he decided to leave Harvard, several of his colleagues would likely join him. Charles Ogletree, a fellow Harvard professor who is acting as West's spokesman, said West was pleased to have received a clear apology from Summers, but that he "won't be making any decision about his academic future until February at the earliest."
Harvard's unique prestige and clout in the realm of US education make the question more than merely academic to many black leaders. But even apart from the particular attention paid to Harvard, many black academics are sensitive to what they perceive as a national move away from affirmative-action policies, says Raymond Winbush, director of the Race Relations Institute at Fisk University, a historically black institution in Nashville, Tenn.
Affirmative action has come under heavy scrutiny. Two cases charging the University of Michigan with discriminating against white applicants could reach the US Supreme Court this year. Last summer, the University of Georgia was rebuked in a circuit court of appeals for its affirmative-action policy.
But Summers' difficulties with diversity at Harvard appear to have outstripped concern over this single issue. A few days after his rift with the Afro-American Studies department became public, some Latino professors also came forward, complaining that Summers had insensitively rebuffed their request for a Center for Latino Studies.
Some say the issue is simply that Summers is a tougher manager than past President Neil Rudenstine, and that minorities have made race an issue unnecessarily. "He's spoken to members of other departments this way, and they haven't made a fuss in the public arena," says one source close to the university. "But issues involving race put him in an impossible situation."
But Professor Winbush suggests that something larger - and perhaps more positive - is actually at work at Harvard and in academia in general.
"This is about the 'othering' of the university," he says. Black studies, Latino studies, women's studies have all come under scrutiny as they have claimed their respective places in the academic world.
Black studies programs began in the 1960s but increased in size and prestige in the 1990s. Winbush says the dispute in Cambridge - and the intense media interest in the possibility that some of Harvard's black academic stars might defect to Princeton - shows how far such departments have come in gaining clout and respectability.