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SUMMERS CAVES

By Jeff Jacoby, Globe Columnist
Copyright 2002, The Boston Globe

January 6, 2002

(Expanded slightly from the version that appeared in print.)

I had been thinking that Harvard did well to make former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers its new president last summer, and when the news broke recently that Summers had so offended the stars of the university's Afro-American Studies Department that they were thinking of relocating to Princeton, I was sure of it. But now I've got my doubts.

Af-Am is headed by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and includes the philosopher K. Anthony Appiah and sociologist William Julius Wilson. All of them were supposedly miffed at Summers, but it soon became evident that the only faculty member who really had his nose out of joint was Cornel West, the ubiquitous "public intellectual" with the trademark afro and the endless supply of leftist cant.

West is one of the great poseurs of modern academe, a blowhard who loves the pompous gush of his own rhetoric, the author of deadly prose like this passage from his book Keeping Faith:

"Following the model of the black diasporan traditions of music, athletics, and rhetoric, black cultural workers must constitute and sustain discursive and institutional networks that deconstruct earlier modern black strategies for identity-formation, demystify power relations that incorporate class, patriarchal, and homophobic biases, and construct more multivalent and multidimentional responses that articulate the complexity and diversity of black practices in the modern and postmodern world."

The New Republic's Leon Wieseltier, after reading eight of them, once pronounced West's books "monuments to the devastation of a mind by the squalls of theory." The same could be said of his insights into current events. The meaning of Sept. 11, he declared at Harvard, was that "America has been niggerized." As for the US war against Al Qaeda, he dismissed it as nothing but "revenge . . . adolescent and immature."

West keeps busy off-campus, too. He heads the presidential exploratory committee of Al Sharpton, New York's foul race baiter. And he recently recorded a hip-hop CD on which he sounds, to quote one review, "like he's reading his old lectures, which are lathered and slathered in . . . academese and hot-buttered hokum."

Apparently what so provoked West was Summers's demand that he spend less time on such frivolous pursuits and more in serious scholarship. At a meeting in October, Sommers reportedly also urged him to help combat Harvard's rampant grade inflation, singling out "Introduction to Afro-American Studies," West's popular gut course, as a prime example of the problem.

Now, West holds the elite rank of University Professor, one of only 14 Harvard faculty members who do, and Summers no doubt assumed he could speak to someone of his intellectual mettle bluntly and without evasion. But West is not used to being scolded -- especially not by a mere mortal like Summers -- and he took the rebuke very badly.

Naturally West's partisans had no intention of conceding that he might legitimately deserve criticism. They said the problem was Summers, who "acts like a bull in a china shop" and had failed to prostrate himself before the altar of racial preferences.

"It's absolutely critical," intoned Charles Ogletree, the Harvard law professor and West confidant, "that the president make an unequivocal public statement in support of affirmative action."

Why such a statement was "absolutely critical" Ogletree didn't explain, but it seems to me the only thing it was critical to was the effort to soothe West's wounded feelings with a little racial shakedown. "There's always something to be gotten out of Harvard when you scream 'racism,' " one well-known scholar, a longtime member of the Harvard community, told me. "The only question is, what are they looking to get?"

As if to prove the point, Jesse Jackson parachuted into Cambridge on Jan. 1, calling for a meeting with Summers and warning that any "equivocation or lack of clarity about affirmative action" at Harvard would be seen as "very disturbing." Sharpton chimed in too, threatening to sue Harvard for harming his presidential prospects.

At which point, sad to say, Summers appears to have caved. He agreed to meet with Jackson. He apologized to West, Gates, Appiah, and Wilson. He issued a statement fulsomely praising "Harvard's longstanding commitment to diversity" and pledging "an ever more open and inclusive environment." Above all, he implored West & Co. to stay at Harvard, and vowed to "compete vigorously to make this an attractive environment."

I suppose "compete vigorously" could be something other than a euphemism for "pay the blackmailers," but the West camp is certainly sounding very pleased. "We have made incredible progress with President Summers," Ogletree told the Harvard Crimson, "and I am very happy with the way things have developed."

Summers, a veteran Harvard prof told me the other day, "is tough -- not somebody you can mau-mau easily." Don't look now, but it just got a little easier.

Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe
His E-mail address is -
jacoby@globe.com
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