Back in 2002, when Harvard President Lawrence Summers asked then-Harvard professor Cornel West to cut back on his hip-hop recordings and return to serious scholarship, for which the university was paying him, after all, West went straight to the media and charged Summers with being insensitive to African-Americans. What followed was a game of power politics, which Summers won decisively.
West's primary complaint was that Summers had "disrespected" him and everyone else who shares his skin tone. Avoided entirely was the substance of Summers' request. Illuminated with floodlights was how that request made West feel.
Predictably, a small chorus of Harvard faculty backed West up. One hundred sixty-seven Harvard professors signed a letter supporting West, who had not published a serious scholarly book in more than a decade, as Berkeley linguistics professor John McWhorter noted shortly after the dispute became public.
"This is pure and simple about telling our colleagues how much we respect and admire them," Harvard professor David Elwood said about the letter supporting West.
"We aren't trying to send a message to anyone except our colleagues in Afro-Am -- and maybe the rest of the world," professor Theda Skocpol told the Harvard Crimson. "Events of past weeks have given the impression that there's something less than total support for Afro-Am at Harvard."
It was a battle of symbols and messages. Summers' confrontation might be perceived by the outside world as "something less than total support for Afro-Am at Harvard," and they couldn't have that.
But underneath lay a more substantial concern: If the university president could make Cornel West -- the brightest mass of glowing gas in Harvard's large and glittering constellation of star professors -- quit the recording studio and return to the library, then what could he do to the lowly professors, assistant professors and lecturers whose lights remained invisible to anyone without a telescope trained on obscure academic journals?
Summers called West's bluff, and the celebrity professor chose to leave rather than work for a boss who demanded results. But in that victory were sown the seeds of Summers' future troubles.
Faculty members learned from the West affair that they'd have to be a lot tougher to win a confrontation with this president. So when Summers' remarks at a January 15 National Bureau of Economic Research conference prompted MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins to copy West and run to the media to breathlessly proclaim that the Harvard president does not sufficiently respect her disadvantaged subset of the population, the faculty were ready.
This time a mere letter would not do, and Summers' opponents knew it. By a vote of 218-185, with 18 abstentions, Arts and Sciences faculty members on Tuesday expressed no confidence in Summers -- despite his numerous apologies for guessing that perhaps men had a greater aptitude for science than women.
Of course, there are more than 700 members of the Arts and Sciences faculty at Harvard, which calls into question the importance of Tuesday's vote.
It looks like the attempt to push Summers out the door does not have widespread support among Harvard's faculty. Rather, it appears to be coming from the usual suspects: left-wing professors who either enjoy challenging authority in general or who have a vested interest in keeping a strong-willed and reform-minded university president from poking his nose into their world of intellectually questionable courses and activism masked as "research."
At many, probably most, universities, a faculty council or the full tenured faculty is charged with granting tenure. At Harvard, that responsibility rests fully with the president. Faculty vote to give tenure, but the president has the final say and has full authority to nullify a faculty vote.
Last year, Summers vetoed the unanimous decision of the African and African-American Studies department to offer tenure to Marcyliena Morgan, whom the Boston Globe describes as a "hip-hop scholar."
Probably Morgan's most noted accomplishment was founding Harvard's Hip Hop Archive. Her academic credits consisted of publishing exactly one book, and the Globe reported that her classes received poor reviews from students. Nonetheless, the department voted to grant her tenure. Her husband, Lawrence Bobo, whose academic work was more noteworthy, already had tenure at Harvard. After Summers' veto, both Bobo and Morgan left for Stanford.
Summers' refusal to grant tenure to someone who so clearly did not deserve it, though she had the support of her department, had to have sent shockwaves throughout the faculty.
The president's unwillingness to cave to political correctness (remember his warning that "profoundly anti-Israel views are increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities") and his desire to push out professors who prefer dabbling in pop culture to creating serious scholarship should have made him a hero at an institution that prides itself on being America's most prestigious and intellectually challenging institution of higher education.
And perhaps he does have the support, albeit silent, of most of the faculty. He certainly has the support of the Harvard Corporation, which functions as Harvard's board of directors. But his independence and refusal to value academic trendiness over academic rigor have made him the primary target of a disaffected minority of faculty members for whom he represents a serious threat.
Officially, the dissatisfaction with Summers centers on his remarks about women and his "management style." More likely, the conflict stems from a fear among Harvard's poseurs, professional activists, and intellectual lightweights that Summers could emerge from this controversy as a strong and highly independent president -- one who will bend only so far to political intimidation.
A university president not susceptible to political intimidation is the worst nightmare for any political activist disguised as a professor. That reality, and not Summers' benign comments on women, is the most probable driving force behind this increasingly absurd controversy.