Idea Of The Day


Just over a decade ago, Benno Schmidt, an ambitious and rather bumptious president of Yale University, was derided by students for his interfering ways, some of whom chose to wear T-shirts bearing the words: “Schmidt Happens.” Now, at Harvard, students may soon be deciding upon the phraseology for a similar T-Shirt. The new president of that university, Larry Summers, who served as Treasury secretary in the twilight of the Clinton administration, has—perhaps more out of clumsiness than naked ambition—created an academic furor. As the New York Times and the Boston Globereport, at an October meeting between Summers and Professor Cornel West, a luminary of Harvard’s Afro-American Studies department, the president suggested that West, who had been on a yearlong sabbatical, should return to “serious” subjects, eschewing lighter concerns such as recording rap songs. (That a professor should produce a rap recording is neither here nor there—no one cares two figs how much air time other professors fill up between ad breaks on cable news or history channels.) In addition, Summers asked West to join in a universitywide effort to stamp out grade-inflation at the richest university on the planet. The exact wording of the exchange between Summers and West is not known, but West was apparently incensed that the college president would challenge a professor’s credentials at their first formal meeting. West has now threatened to leave Harvard, which might prompt two of the professor’s closest and prominent colleagues in his department, Henry Louis Gates and Kwame Anthony Appiah, to also depart—perhaps for Princeton University, which, in a further twist to the plot, is eager to set up an Afro-American studies department that might rival Harvard’s. Other academics might also head south: The Globe quotes one black professor as saying: “If Harvard lets these people leave, and they don’t make an all-out effort to keep them, I would really have to think about whether to stay.” Of Summers, another said: “People are willing to give a new president a grace period, but if in that time he acts like a bull in a china shop, it makes people very worried. It appears as if he has deliberately set himself on a collision course with faculty members.” Meantime, the Globe reports today that the Rev. Jesse Jackson has offered his services as a mediator between the president and West, although should those and other negotiations fail, then one can be certain that students at Harvard will go about a T-shirt campaign. Larry Summers can expect to be ridiculed.