Questions you cannot ask

At the end of the academic year 2006, the president of Harvard University, Lawrence Summers will step down. A brilliant man, he has been done in by the politics that surround us. Even though he heads one of the more liberal institutions, the questions he raised in the statements he made, are not tolerated. There are still things that are taboo and religion and conservatism drag down a good man, in today’s day and age.

There is a very interesting article in the Boston Globe today which speaks about this. It also gives a great background about how some of the Ivy League schools came about due to the changing religious beliefs of the people of that time.

Read on…..

Another victim of tumultuous politics

By H.D.S. Greenway | Boston Globe, February 28, 2006

SOME YEARS AGO, Derek Bok, then president of Harvard University, presided over a lunch given for the prime minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi, who was visiting the campus. In his introductory remarks, Bok playfully said that his job and the prime minister’s had much in common. The Harvard faculty, Bok said, resembled the vast multitudes of India in that they ”speak in different tongues, worship different gods, and are all disrespectful of central authority.”

The prime minister got a good laugh over that, but in due course he was assassinated while campaigning to regain office, a victim of his country’s tumultuous politics. And in due course, long after Bok had peacefully retired from office, a new president, Lawrence Summers, has fallen victim to the tumultuous politics of Harvard.

Summers’s first offense seems to have been to have had the temerity to question the scholastic output of Cornel West, the popular and charismatic professor of black studies who decamped for Princeton in a huff. Perhaps there was a lack of the expected deference and courtesy due to a university professor, but there were many who felt it was a college president’s job to maintain faculty standards.

But the sinker was his questioning whether there might be some innate differences between men and women to explain why there were fewer women specializing in math and science. One might have thought that this was an interesting question — certainly well within the purview of great university to discuss. But it turns out that ”some hypotheses are unmentionable, ” as the Financial Times put it. ”That this should be so in wider society is not all that surprising. That it should also be the norm in an institution whose reason for existence is freedom of inquiry is shocking,” the paper said.

Shocking, maybe, but hardly new. Faculties in American universities have long been hotbeds of whatever orthodoxy was in fashion, and Summers was clearly wrong when he thought the life of a university president would be a gentler and kinder environment than the politics and infighting of Washington.

Harvard is not the oldest university in the new world — Lima’s was founded in Peru in 1551 — but in 1636 Harvard was the first college to be founded in the English colonies. The name of the town where Harvard dwells was changed from New Towne to Cambridge two years later in honor of Cambridge, England, where many of Harvard’s founders had been educated. However, no sooner was there a college than there was controversy over orthodoxy. Harvard’s first president, Henry Dunster, was forced to resign after he opposed the baptism of infants on the grounds that it was contrary to Scripture — seemingly an undiscussable hypothesis in the 1650s. Then as now, orthodoxy trumped freedom of inquiry, but Dunster lasted longer than Summers.

Indeed one of the reasons for founding Harvard was to circumvent an unacceptable hypothesis in British colleges. Some 130 alumni of the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and Trinity College, Dublin, had immigrated to New England in the mid 1600s, and ”these men wanted the same advantages for their children as they had enjoyed in the old country,” according to historian Samuel Eliot Morison. ”Now that the English universities were closed to Puritans, the only way they could obtain a supply of learned ministers for their Congregational churches . . . was to set up a college of their own.”

One of the reasons Harvard men founded Yale in 1701 was that they objected to the dilution of pristine Calvinistic orthodoxy at Harvard and hoped to found a ”truer school of the prophets” in Connecticut. Yet Yale was not to escape the dangerous shoals of unmentionable hypotheses. At the Yale commencement of 1722, the rector, Timothy Cutler, concluded the ceremony by saying, ”Let all the people say, amen.” A shock of horror ran through the audience, as this reference was from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer — an unmentionable hypothesis in Congregational circles. Cutler was forced to resign quicker than was Lawrence Summers 284 years later. Cutler, and other like-minded ministers, became Episcopalians, and the partial result of their conversion was the founding of King’s College, later to be called Columbia University, in New York City.

So now Harvard has expelled its unorthodox president, brilliant and visionary though he may be. It may be difficult to find a president who will settle for keeping his mouth shut and just raise money in the wake of such a sorry mess.

H.D.S. Greenway’s column appears regularly in the Globe.

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