Friday, May 19, 2006
It is a debacle at Harvard: a great university getting rid of its most outstanding president since James B. Conant, the only outstanding president at a major university today, and doing this for no stated reason. His unofficial detractors brought up only his abrasive style. In no way could it be said either that he had completed his mission, and thus deserved retirement, or that he had failed in it, and so deserved to be booted. The event is demeaning to all involved, but especially to the three main parties—the Harvard Corporation, the faculty, and Mr. Summers.
These three share the blame in descending order, and speaking as an informed observer, not an insider, I will assess it as I see it now....
Since first entering office Summers had many times set forth "greatness" as his goal. He was aware, and he wanted to make the rest of Harvard aware, that there is a difference between a wealthy, famous, and prestigious university and a great one. The prestigious university, complacent and self-satisfied, will in time lose its repute; the great one will keep its luster and gain more renown effortlessly, just by being itself and aiming high. To get Harvard back on the right track, however, takes the effort in which Summers was engaged.
Summers proposed a curriculum review that would result in solid courses aimed to answer students' needs, replacing stylish courses designed to appeal to their whims. Such courses would require professors to teach in their fields but out of their specialties; no longer would they assume that the specialized course they want to teach is just the course that students need. Summers also began a move to rein in grade inflation; he dispelled some of Harvard's political correctness by inviting conservative speakers and looking for conservative professors to hire; he transformed the policy of affirmative action by reducing the pressure to hire more blacks and women as such; he opposed Harvard's hostile attitude toward the U.S. military. Besides these measures, he sought to put or keep Harvard first in science, an intent made possible by a considerable expansion of the university across the Charles River to Allston. This is the substance of Summers's ambitious presidency.
Thanks to the Harvard Corporation, all this effort is suspended—who knows for how long.
Read the whole thing.
The faculties of our prestigious universities underestimate the contribution of that prestige to their own professional success. They believe that their individual reputations sustain the prestige of the university, but they are not willing to test that proposition by tolerating colleagues who are as intellectually varied as they are demographically diverse. Why? Perhaps, deep down, they are afraid that cause and effect are reversed: if it is the prestige of the university that confers their reputation -- rather than the other way around -- then how much of their professional success is simply because they work at Harvard? How many Harvard professors have the strength of character to confront that question? And, if Summers was right that Harvard's prestige is presently a wasting asset, who will be responsible for the depletion of that asset?
[Cross-posted at Villainous Company]
The National Review Guide to Colleges lists 56 schools which still have solid core curricula. Not all are conservative schools, but there is a strong tendency in that direction.
I handed my sons the volume and stated "you can go anywhere listed in this book." One might get a good education at any number of schools. It is no longer a guarrantee that a prestigious school will definitely provide you with a solid education.
P.S. The second just graduated last week, and we remain very pleased with both our boys' choices.
Admittedly, the scientific and technical schools were not rated, as they have a different mission.
Summers was let go because he was nationally recognized as a git. Whether or not you agree with his legendary comments, you have to agree they didn't add to Harvard's prestige.
AVI, you could suggest your boys major in engineering or science. Virtually all engineering and science programs have "solid core curricula", otherwise they don't get accredited. (Or have I misunderstood what you meant?)
Only partly misunderstood. My nephew is in engineering, most of my friendws are in engineering or science, and all had to take some history, literature, philosophy, or social science. But they didn't have to take much. Science and technology cares its later reward monetarily, so I don't think it needs much encouraging on an individual basis (on a national basis is something else). The value of those things which start you on the road to clear thinking and gaining perspective don't provide much cash incentive, which is why I think students should be leaned on to take them. Such things are also good for the republic.
While there were secular and state schools on the list, there were a great many traditional Catholic and evangelical schools - more than one would initially expect. There are terrible Catholic and evangelical schools, of course, but they are definitely pushing the name schools now.
It's hard to beat a Jesuit education for "History of Western Civilization" type stuff.
By the way, some people really like engineering and science, even in the absence of monetary rewards. (They're called "graduate students" or if you must, "geeky nerds".)