Of course Lawrence Summers, the rookie president of Harvard, was going to get in trouble. As a New Democrat-ish alumnus of the Clinton administration, he was well to the right of the Harvard campus, where the ideological spectrum runs mostly from New Left to Old Left.
In other words, Summers was already under suspicion when he trespassed into further political incorrectness. First, he criticized grade inflation and then he took on black studies. The storm that followed revealed much not only about the state of the academy but also the fate of "diversity."
Last fall, as part of an overall agenda for upgrading scholarship on campus, Summers invited Cornel West, a professor of Afro-American studies, in for a chat about grade inflation (these days, half of all Harvard grades are A's, and West's grades are notoriously lenient) and work product (West is best known of late for his role as political advisor to liberal-left Democrats Bill Bradley and Al Sharpton and for his rap CD).
Summers probably thought he was offering friendly advice. Having taught at Harvard earlier in his career, he knew that college executives have little leverage over tenured faculty. But West wasn't friendly back. He told National Public Radio that it was "unprecedented" for him to be "attacked and insulted in that particular way." Soon, the rest of the Afro-American department and West's friend, Sharpton, were blasting away at Summers. Jesse Jackson even flew in for a guest-scold.
Summers quickly apologized. From the point of view of keeping his job, he did the right thing. But to the extent that Harvard has a mission of doing the right thing by the country as a whole, Summers was wrong. Why? Because, as an academic, West is something of a lightweight. And the orthodoxy that West & Co. have imposed is the enemy of the diversity that Harvard supposedly celebrates.
In fact, despite West's saying it was unprecedented for him to be attacked, there's plenty of precedent, for good reason. In 1995, Leon Wieseltier wrote a 5,500-word piece in the liberal-leaning New Republic titled "The Unreal World of Cornel West." Wieseltier criticized West for his prose, which he deemed "noisy, tedious, slippery," as well as for his ideas, which speak for themselves, as in this Westianism: "Marxist thought becomes even more relevant after the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe than it was before."
As the New Republic says, West lives in an unreal world. Lingering Marxism is a part of this unreality, and so is grade inflation; if nobody gets a bad mark, then nobody is disrespected--right? West wants the upside of "diversity," which seems to mean his voice being heard, without the downside of true diversity, which is the freedom of others, including his employers, to evaluate that voice.
At its etymological essence, diversity--the condition of being different--implies debate, disagreement, even conflict. Diversity without difference is inherently artificial, a precious orchid-like confection that can exist only in a hothouse such as Harvard. And so Summers, fresh wind that he was, had to be shut down.
This is a point made by Peter Skerry, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, in the winter 2002 issue of the Brookings Review titled "Beyond Sushiology: Does Diversity Work?" Skerry defines sushiology as the presumption that diversity programs can be like choosing from different varieties of the same fish-food. Sushi, after all, is still sushi.
Genuine diversity, Skerry writes, brings genuine contention, as seen in recent struggles over immigration. And yet it's simpler, he says, to label whites who resist foreign influxes as "racist," ignoring similar immigration-related feuds among nonwhite populations.
But don't count on much honest talk on these topics from Summers. No doubt he has learned his lesson. Honesty as the best policy may be good theory, but "diversity," no matter how much dishonesty it requires, is the best career strategy.