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02/27/2005

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The comments of Harvard president Larry Summers about women in science are interesting but the reactions to them are even more interesting. Timothy Burke says: Most of what I have to say about Larry Summers has been said already by others. He is not a... [Read More]

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scott cunningham

Strong accolades for Summer. My response to this has been that Summers was being unfairly criticized, and it does seem as though the transcript is bearing that out. But, this is the second really big controversy Summers has had since taking the job not too long ago (the other being the Cornwel West flack, also something that he seemed to be unfairly criticized for), and I was wondering if maybe Summers lacked the kind of administrative skills needed for President. Even if the criticisms about him have been unfair and unfounded, it might say something about him that it keeps happening. The controversies he keeps having kind of remind me of the flack he got when at the World Bank for an internal memo he circulated about how we needed more, not less, pollution in developing countries since they could afford it. That memo shows up very often in ecology textbooks, and he is continually criticized for it.

Peter Wizenberg

No one seems to ever complain about Berlitz...

Palooka

"Given the effectiveness of the American higher education system, its governance, including the role of faculty, is probably on the whole along the right lines."

OK.....

You argued that immigration (both legal and illegal) is of great benefit to the United States YET you wished to IMPROVE on that system nevertheless.

But now you would like to take the fact that American academia is the best in the world as proof no reform or change is needed.

Bad argument any time, really bad when you just argued differently.

Since you mentioned the competitiveness of universities being one of the principal reasons there should be no change, how do you expect them to remain competitive when they can't change (innovate)? Shouldn't you at least welcome some experimentation along the lines Posner recommends in order to be certain it is not a better system?

Kendall

As far as I know, there are no legal barriers to entry in the higher education field, and so nothing to stop a creative entrepreneur from attempting a new model of university governance.

For instance, the University of Phoenix and other similar institutions are private for-profit firms supplying higher education, and have had a great deal of success in some aspects of the market. Though they are not truly competitors with the top U.S. universities, thet do compete with community colleges and other lower-tier public and private colleges, showing that markets are quite capable of generating innovation in higher education.

The fact that we have not seen more innovation in university governance among top schools, nor have there been any major new entrants into the upper echelons of academia since the latter part of the 19th century, seems to suggest that the current system may be better than others that have been suggested.

Palooka

Kendall,

According to Posner, those changes ARE taking place. Besides, if everybody used that weak thinking as a reason not to innovate, NOBODY would ever innovate because they were waiting to see those changes from someone else first.

I am unsure about what legal barriers there may be to starting an institution of higher learning (certainly there are some for professional programs), but there are certainly financial barriers (high fixed costs).

TheWinfieldEffect

If we define an innovation as an overall reduction in the average cost of firms, then in analyzing Summers' governance at Harvard, we must ask were he were president at every university would American university education overall improve. Well, professors like Cornel West would be out of a job; but they would be replaced at the cost of recruiting. Many professors would be angry and uncooperative; to placate them, Summers might raise their salaries. Then again, tuition would rise to cover these costs. If the quality of education remained constant, then I don't see how Summers' leadership could be considered innovative. All things being equal, the quality of education would have to rise, or what the professors were paid would have to drop, or both.

N.E.Hatfield

In my mind, the Summers issue is nothing more than a brouhaha over the Hypersensitivity issues of our age. Those issues being; race, gender, creed, and sexual orientation. There is a chorus that always chimes in against the individual who raises a question on the issue. Especially in academia - the supposed land of intellectual freedom. Is this a form of elenchus run amuck? Or the attempt to hi-jack the debate?

As for the governance of the University, it's always been a battle over who controls. The Adminstration? The Faculty? The Students? At an institution like Harvard, filled with the cream of intellectual prima donna's, I would expect the confrontation to be heated and sharp. This may be good for the institution, at the very least it shows that every one is involved.

Nicholas

Thank you Beckner, for at least being reasonable in your thinking. I would like to note that the pool of qualified candidates professors is not exactly overflowing, the money in the private sector is frankly much better. Also, I think Posner is a bit naive about the culture of academia. It isn't as easy as he purports it to be and by no means is it analogous to the private sector. For one, there is the rather "inconveint" matter of tenure which, I'm sorry to inform you, isn't going away anytime soon (not unless the institution expects to still attract top rate candidates). It's always been this way, mainly because the greatest assets of the institution *are* the faculty. The overhead, time, and energy involved having a "turnover" rate like a retail store is untenable. Also, like it or not, the types of people attracted to academia, whether conservative or liberal, tend to be assertive and unfraid to speak out. When you become an administrator, you should be aware of the environment in which you operate and adjust your behavior to make it operate in the smoothest way possible. The problem isn't that he was right or wrong about his statement, but rather he should have know better. It's like the ship of fools sailing a boat into a hurricane.

Also, I find it rather ironic that people are more than willing to stand up for Summer's freedom of speech but not Ward Churchill's. Just to be clear I support both men's right to have open and honest dialogue, but in both cases I think the way they did it was rather dumb.

P.S. - I'm looking forward to hearing both your's and Posner's commentary on ROPER v. SIMMONS. Please don't disappoint!

Palooka

There have been several comments saying that divorcing faculty from adminstrative decisions will lower the quality of professors, as the best the brightest leave in droves.

If one considers a voice in adminstrative dealings truly a plus for professors, perhaps this is true. Maybe they would flee to a university more to their liking (who says that is a bad thing, and who says the best professors are the most eager to meddle in adminstrative policy?). But I think one thing is for sure--few would leave academia. There are no alternatives in the private sector which even approximate the job of a professor (except in the sciences, and I think there is a case to be made that the best scientific minds are probably better used in the private sector). Prima donnas like West are not the norm in academia. It is wrong to assume most would leave their academic homes because of disagreements in adminstrative policy. If that is why they became professors--to exert influence over questions they are unqualified to answer--then the academy is better without them.

Kevin

Competition is imperfect:

Students pick schools based largely on reputation, changes in which seriously lag behind changes in quality. The same problem to a reduced extent plagues graduate student matriculation decisions, and to an even lesser extent prospective faculty members.

The marketplace for corporate control doesn't exist as strongly for nonprofits such as universities. There aren't shareholders. And donors don't really stop giving to one university and start giving to another; it's each university competing against the Red Cross and churches and etc. for each alumni's charitable giving. Plus donations can't be retracted in a way comparable to how stockholders can liquidate their equity.

Paul Deignan

If I could just add to this one point:

Let's not confuse the temporal and spatial dimensions of the relationships.


It is true to say that a good university will outperform others in the long run if its internals are superior. However, that does imply that the university is operating efficiently, only that it outperforms its competition. There may well be a time when a competitor makes the current field obsolete over night. We don't know that this will not occur unless we know more about what can be gained from internal adjustments.

One function of the administration should be to insure an alignment of external criterions with the university internal functional outputs -- to arrange cooperative relations within the system towards common goals. This is the spatial dimension.

For example, when instruction is left to the individual whims of the various faculty members, it suffers. The ultimate objection of instruction can be externally measured by new student demand and student satisfaction in the years post graduation (dispersed alumni giving). Furthermore, cooperation among centers within the university is not a self-organizing process. This also demands administration guidance and facilitation. These are areas where good administration is necessary, yet distinctly apart from faculty objectives. It is necessary to introduce rules that promote helpful growth we dont want to nourish cancer.

So I would suggest a systemic analysis rather than one that focuses solely within the university. This way we will not get into poor arguments about who has the long term interests of the university at heart.

Palooka

"I find it rather ironic that people are more than willing to stand up for Summer's freedom of speech but not Ward Churchill's."

Why is that so ironic? Would it be inconsistent to defend a Biologists' right to teach evolution but not defend a Holocaust denier? If one defends one professor's right to reasoned speech, must they tolerate any amount of hate, lies, and incompetency?

Churchill compared innocent victims of mass murder to the perpetrators of mass murder. He has promoted the violent overthrow of the US Government. He lied to obtain his possession, and he continued that lie to gain promotion after promotion. He lied about his service in Vietnam (remember what happened to the highly regarded Ellis JUST for doing that). Scrutiny of his scholarship has raised serious concerns about his professional competency. Even accepting the merits of the relatively new "academic freedom" addendum to the First Amendment, are the taxpayers really obligated to pay his salary while he hatefully refers to them--or I guess just the ones in suits-- as "little Eichmanns." Must a university really maintain an unqualified, incomptentent, hateful liar to the detriment of its reputation? That is what the First Amendment means to you?

What has Summers done? He spoke aloud about one plausible, albeit controversial, explanation about the mathematical appitudes of men and women.

R

"If one defends one professor's right to reasoned speech, must they tolerate any amount of hate, lies, and incompetency?"

Yes. I take your point to be that Summers' speech was qualitatively better than Churchill's speech. You are right, it was. But let's not confuse First Amendment issues with issues about the content of arguments. Unless it falls into one of several narrow exceptions, Churchill's speech is protected by the First Amendment, no matter how asinine. That is the point of that Amendment.

That is not to say you shouldn't criticize Churchill, or his institution. You should. And likewise, the quality of Summers' speech is also relevant to arguments about whether he should have spoken, and what his response should have been down the road. But it is not relevant to his First Amendment rights.

Personally I'm not sure how much the Summers contraversy has to say about University governance. I think most posters agree that what Summers said wasn't so bad. The only argument comes from the wisdom of his saying it in the forum that he chose, as a university president. The issue is: was it prudent?

From the results, it seems it was not. We can (and should) find fault with the way some faculty reacted. But we could also argue that Summers could have foreseen those reactions. The resulting argument comes down to what is and isn't prudent leadership for a unversity president. I'm not an academic and don't know how the institution works, except from a students' perspective. I doubt if many of the posters here have more information than I, though some undoubtedly do.

I fail to see how an argument about whether a remark was prudent or imprudent has much relevance for university governance as a whole. If faculty members had more or less say in the running of the institution, do you think their reaction would have been any different? Would the contraversy have been avoided? I think probably not.

The Summers contraversy is good for people who have an axe to grind about university politics. But it's only a spring-board. Then you get to talk about Cornell West.

Palooka

"If one defends one professor's right to reasoned speech, must they tolerate any amount of hate, lies, and incompetency?"

Yes. I take your point to be that Summers' speech was qualitatively better than Churchill's speech. You are right, it was. But let's not confuse First Amendment issues with issues about the content of arguments. Unless it falls into one of several narrow exceptions, Churchill's speech is protected by the First Amendment, no matter how asinine. That is the point of that Amendment.

=====
I'm not a particular fan of carving out a special First Amendment just for the academy (you are aware that traditional application of the First Amendment did not guarantee your right of government employment, so I think reasonable people can disagree about what the "point" of the freedom of speech is). But academic freedom still does not mandate a university maintain a tenured professor who is a Holocaust denier, an advocate of murder or murder, or an advocate of terrorism (Churchill). I know there are arguments about slippery slopes and what not, but you really believe a university professor can't be fired for advocating terrorism or denying the holocaust?

Moreoever, Churchill is guilty of other, unrelated infractions. Incompetency, plagiarism (both of his scholarship, if it can be called that, and of his private art works), of lying about his race to obtain his position and get promoted, and lying about his service in Vietnam. All those are offenses which he could be terminated for without impinging on the idea of "academic freedom."

R

Palooka, I think you confuse my point.

I do not argue that the First Amendment guarantees Churchill's employment no matter the transgression; I merely assert that it applies equally to his and Summers' speech, regardless of the merits of that speech. You seemed to challenge that it did. I think what you were getting at was that the merits of the speech is relevant when criticizing either for making the speech. You are right, it is. It isn't relevant though as to their First Amendment rights.

I am a little rusty as to the extend that the First Amendment applies to actions taken by public universities. I am sure it does not protect plagiarism. But it is very basic to the idea of free speech that the amount of protection is not determined by the "rightness" of the speech at issue. I don't think you really mean to say that it is.

Palooka

"But it is very basic to the idea of free speech that the amount of protection is not determined by the "rightness" of the speech at issue. I don't think you really mean to say that it is."

Of course not. But when we are talking about "academic freedom" we are not looking at the core of the First Amendment, we are looking at an recent extension of it--that a professor may not be FIRED for speech. I do not imply that Churchill cannot say the things he does as a private citizen, I only assert that the concept of academic freedom is not coextensive to traditional freedom of speech boundaries (speech as a private citizen). Somebody has a right, under the First Amendment, to write that the Holocaust never happened. A professor does NOT have a right to make similar claims AND remain employed by the state.

R

Ok. This is interesting (though unrelated to Becker's post -- sorry everyone else).

There are two first amendment issues here, as I see it: 1) does the first amendment protect professors employed at a state university from being fired in retaliation for political speech; 2) If so, does it protect all political speech, or does it leave out particularly bad types of political speech?

First, as a matter of doctrine, I'm going to point out that political speech is the mostly highly protected type of speech. Second, although it was particularly poorly formulated, and in my opinion, offensive, Churchill's speech was political speech.

Palooka, to clarify your position, I'd like you to imagine that Churchill had given a rather vanilla anti-war speech. Let's say he gave a speech denouncing the war as a pacifist who is opposed to all wars. Then let's say the governor of whatever state it is demanded that Churchill be fired from his state funded college for having made those statements.

In fact, plug any and everything you want into Churchill's speech. Let's say it was a speech in favor of Ayn Rand, her intelligence and beauty. Let's say it was a speech about social security, or about a particular political candidate that you like or dislike. Do you concede that the first amendment protects Churchill from being fired in retaliation for his political speech? (in fact, it does).

Then, leaping away from bizarro Churchill and into the real (perhaps more bizarro) Churchill, on what basis can you say that the first amendment does not protect him from being singled out by the governor to be fired for his political speech? This has nothing to do with Churchill's incompetence, his poor scholarship, or his alleged plagiarism. Churchill can be fired for any of those things. This has to do with Churchill being fired by the governor for explicitly political reasons.

It seems to me that your only basis is that Churchill's political speech is particularly offensive to you. You concede that offensive political speech is somewhat protected, but not as protected as non-offensive political speech. I agree that Churchill's statements are offensive. But (and here we are getting to something that the law is very clear on) content based restrictions on political speech are not allowed. The first amendment protects political speech in almost all circumstances. There are good reasons for that, if you'd care to hear them.

Palooka

As a matter of policy, I don't mind the concepts of academic freedom. In fact, I strongly favor it. I just questioned if the "point" of the First Amendment is that which is now embodied in the concept of academic freedom. It's one thing to say the government cannot prevent you from saying something, it is quite different to say that one has a right to not be fired because of one's speech. I don't really oppose it, I just thinking treating it as identical to the situation it was originally applied to is inappropriate.

"Do you concede that the first amendment protects Churchill from being fired in retaliation for his political speech? (in fact, it does)."

I agree that political speech should be (and generally is) the most protected form of speech. But since I do not accept the proposition that a Holocaust denier could not be fired for his speech, I cannot accept your premise. I'd say that Churchill's comments (when considered in the context of his entire works, and his unwillingness to apologize for them) are of similar offensiveness to my hypothetical. It's also clear that the Courts have not interpreted the limits of academic freedom to be coextensive with the limits of ordinary speech, so I reject your premise as a matter of current constitutional principles as well. R, I see Becker has responded to comments now. Please post any response in that thread or I might overlook it here.

Anonymous

As for the governance of the University, it's always been a battle over who controls. The Adminstration? The Faculty? The Students? At an institution like Harvard, filled with the cream of intellectual prima donna's, I would expect the confrontation to be heated and sharp. This may be good for the institution, at the very least it shows that every one is involved.

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