Attacking Larry Summers Again

On Forbes.com today, Harvey Silverglate responds to a New York Times blogpost by Stanley Fish on Lawrence Summers, who may be president-elect Obama’s choice for secretary of the treasury. (We asked Silverglate to write it for us, but Forbes beat us by half an hour.)

Silverglate did not much like Fish’s article, and we found it insufferable ourselves. Fish argues that senior administrators simply cannot say things that might upset the various constitutencies of their universities. Unlike professors and students, they must make nice all the time. Fish says he takes no position on the issues raised by Summers with criticisms of the work habits of Cornel West and the speculations about the relative rarity of females in the upper ranks of science. Summers’ sin, in Fish’s opinion, was upsetting people and “making the university into the object of an unflattering attention.”

This is quite close to the standard rationale for campus speech codes, which punish speakers for hurting the feelings of any member of a protected group. The offense is the upset. Summers’ remarks to West were in private and his science comment was in a closed meeting that appeared to be off the record. But never mind. Fish doesn’t approve. He recommends tact, patience, poise self-restraint, deference and courtesy. What he definitely does not recommend is a college president who occasionally says what he thinks.

John Leo

John Leo is the editor of Minding the Campus, dedicated to chronicling imbalances within higher education and restoring intellectual pluralism to our American universities. His popular column, "On Society," ran in U.S.News & World Report for 17 years.

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