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Monday, March 06, 2006
What's At Stake In the Summers Debate?

I mean this point to complement CW take on the political correctness dimension of the Larry Summers affair.

I think CW's criticism of the phantom menace of "political correctness" as a rallying point for the spread of blame on the political right is correct. This rallying point, a "catchall" in CW's language, is an attempt by some critics of the university and its culture to lampoon a problem with either directly identifying (a) what the problem is and (b) their proposed method for dealing with the problem. In a way, it's no different than the attempt by some intellectuals to blame the mess of the Iraq war on Leo Strauss and his students. The ascription of blame in that case allows the larger electorate to shift responsibility of the war to a cabal of neoconservatives without having a larger debate about what the Iraq war means for American, Americans, and the world.

Similarly, we should think about what's at stake in the debate over the resignation of Larry Summers from Harvard. If we draw conclusions too quickly about the state of higher education and academic life, we, as political audience, might make the wrong conclusions about the nature of university life, that life's relationship to the non-university world, and its political relevance. There are two separate issues that we should disaggregate. The first issue concerns the problem and the second concerns the cause. My comments are only provisional and should be taken to be a definitive statement about the "crisis" of higher education. I outline potential tensions within this debate and by no means exhaust all possibilities.

First, what does Summers' resignation mean, and its that meaning relevant for other universities? Summers could have resigned because of the frustrations of being a president at a university that has fragmented over time. The sources of this fragmentation could arise from a number of factors, none of which provide an implicit normative criticism or evaluation of the university. The sources of this fragmentation may or may not include considerations like: (1) the professionalization of academic life from market pressures to produce academic works as well as from general internal pressures within each discipline to become an idea in themselves; (2) the various agendas attached to research funding from an increasing amount of sources (like private fund, think tanks, policy research centers, and government departments) which seek to encourage the production of works that furthers their agendas; (3) the increased size and range of the research that academics are called to work on.

Summers may also have resigned because a cabal of faculty had made it difficult to do his job as he pleased (with the realization that his conception of his job might not have been the most prudent way to go about it).

The ex-president could have also have left because he was not able to pursue the vision he wanted to pursue because the trustees couldn't reliable commit to backing him in the internal politics of navigating an organization.

The significance of the resignation is separate from the causes of it. All universities may be subject to the various pressures afflicting Harvard, and this may directly impact on the quality of the research produced. Therefore, all university presidents who were thinking about acting against the forces of fragmentation now have incentives to not do so. This perverse incentive could doom the university the specialized irrelevance where professors and grad students produce niche scholarship for a small, specialized, and alienated demand. The implicit normative argument here is that niche scholarship can no longer aspire to create the university where students and professors seem themselves engaged in the creation of a liberal polity. (I use liberal in the sense of liberal education where one is taught to cultivate discrimination of sources and the process of rigorous and reflective thought.)

The resignation might also be significant because it demonstrates that faculty no longer wish to answer to anyone and don't care about academia as the pursuit of truth-as-facticity. In this story, the (tenured) professors aren't subject to any demands, market or otherwise, and atrophy in their contempt of our American way of life.

Second, if Summers' resignation signals a problem, to whom is the signal sent and why?

The signal might be a signal for parents of undergrads and advanced undergrads considering future life options. The university might only serve the confuse the student (as opposed to preparing them for political life under pluralist conditions) and negate the years of acculturation at home. The parents interpret this to mean that the professors no longer care about education, and, are encouraged by the organization to do so. Advanced undergrads would need to seriously consider if working toward an advanced degree for a possible life in the university would be worth it.

The intended audience might be professors and academicians. It might be a call for professors to think seriously about whether their governance systems in place in the universities can overcome the conservative and counter-revolutionary logics in place. The idea might be that American universities will loose their competitive edge unless they adapt to the changing world. Academicians more skeptical of the university project might use this as an opportunity to call the system of tenure into question and whether the particular institution of tenure causes more problems than it solves.

The Harvard faculty might be the only audience intended. Summers could be saying to them: "you make this job not worth having."

Without a real consideration of what Summers' resignation might mean, the most strident defenders of the university and its culture as well as its most entrenched critics will use this event to confirm their suspicions and triumphantly announce: "See I told you so."