Arnold Kling  

Is Firing the President of Harvard Overblown?

Ending Aging... PC and Availability Bias...

Bryan asks if PC persecution is overblown. I suppose that the term "overblown" can be construed liberally enough (so to speak) to make it impossible to settle the matter. But you might want to re-read this post and consider the Larry Summers case.

Basically, Summers' opponents appear to me to be committing the fallacy of attributing to him the view that all women are inferior to all men. That is, his opponents cannot reason through a basic statistical argument. He had to resign his position in disgrace, and more recently he was disinvited as a dinner speaker, again in disgrace. His opponents did not address his ideas. They attacked him personally.

The way I see it, if anyone deserved to be booted out of their jobs, it would be Summers' critics, including some prominent college administrators. They demonstrated an inability to grasp the basic concept of a statistical distribution. They demonstrated ignorance and incompetence.

But maybe my concerns are overblown.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (11 to date)

This mode of analysis seems to me to be a bit disengenous and ignores all sorts of prior dynamics at play. But it's interesting to me why this approach is even salient to you.

I think this may be an example of using dialectics to preserve representational privilege: here males and females are privileged in the discourse over people who are both or neither. This is similar to white vs. black, homosexual vs. heterosexual, North vs. South, etc. dialectics. Sometimes the best way to silence other voices is through an argument between two voices. I'm speculating that that's why this particular narrative has greater salience to you than the universe of alternative things to talk about, and frames of references with which to approach topics.

General Specific writes:

Probably overblown.

First, in the grand scheme of things, looking at say the last 100 years, one highly visible man losing his job is nothing to cry about.

Second, Summers was disliked by many who worked for him, not because of his opinions but because he was arrogant and dismissive of the views of other people. Basically, he often came across as a jerk. Unless people like that really have something great to offer, they are finally considered a detriment to the organization. One should not commit the fallacy of cause and correlation, thinking that just because he left after the "controversy" he was not sooner or later going to be replaced. The "controversy" was probably the straw that broke the camel's back, that's all.

Third, Summers is the leader of an organization as well as an academic. His role as an academic was not attacked--his role as a leader was. There is a difference. As a leader, he has a responsibility to motivate people, and that motivation includes not taking a statistical fact that might have something to do with women in the workplace and express it as more important than others. This is particularly true given his poor record of granting tenure to women during his time at Harvard. He was a very bad leader-motivator, and his foot-in-mouth inability to speak as an academic and as a leader at the same time doomed his career.

Finally, there is a long history of using genetics or race or gender to discriminate against people. A very long history. To contribute to a panel on how to increase the role of women in the sciences and engineering with something akin to "eh, might be tough, they want to have babies, probably aren't as good at it, and there isn't much proof of discrimination" even though proof of discrimination has been demonstrated--by Hopkins, sitting there at the meeting before she walked out of the room--well, Summers walked into a minefield and stepped on top of one. It's great to be provocative sometimes, but it's often a sign of poor leadership, particularly given his dismal tract record granting tenure to women. The provocateurs are often best in supporting roles, the gadfly, not leading. Because they have trouble leading the team.

Shunning is a natural human instinct. Has Summers been shunned? To a degree, yes. But again--context. Maybe the pendulum has swung a bit to the other side. Women weren't allowed a place in society at all, by and large, now they have fought for that role and take offense when perhaps they might act more dispassionate.

In the big picture: really not a big deal. He was proving to be an ineffective leader. Life isn't always fair. He just needs to deal with it.

MT57 writes:

In and of itself, his termination was sound and not something to rail about. I tend to agree with General Specific's third point, that Summers' failure was one of woefully misunderstanding the difference between being a tenured academic and being a leader of a large academic institution and for that alone the university had a sound basis to terminate him.

But on the broader plane of the breakdown of intellectual freedom due to overemphasis on political correctness, that is an issue that needs to be focused on continuously for the greater good. Just look for a stronger case.

Hopefully anonymous's post is a remarkably efficient combination of jargon and generalizations - it reminded me of a mash up between a McKinsey consultant's power point and a course description of an American Studies class taught by a self-styled progressive.

Bruce G Charlton writes:

"Basically, Summers' opponents appear to me to be committing the fallacy of attributing to him the view that all women are inferior to all men. That is, his opponents cannot reason through a basic statistical argument."

Quite. Plus a lot of wilful misunderstanding, moral grandstanding and self-righteous rage.

And the same is happening here (the mouth-foaming comments are priceless!):

The speech which so offended Pandagon is actually brilliant - in the sense of being both witty and incisive.

read it at:

MT57, haha it may not be my best writing. I'll try to hone the criticism. Beyond that, I'm not sure this discussion is anywhere near the best use of my leisure time.

TGGP writes:

here males and females are privileged in the discourse over people who are both or neither.
There's not a whole lot of them, so I don't see why we would think much about them in the absence of dialectics. You're right on white v. black though. It's really only in America where that division was the one most people made and it makes less sense now as demographics are changing.

Larry writes:

I don't think it's lack of statistical reasoning. The substance of his argument is irrelevant.

Summers' opponents have successfully turned him into a symbol of bias (and a demonstration of their power to control the debate). The half life of his radioactivity is TBD. It may be quite long.

Kane writes:

Perhaps Bryan is defining the issue too narrowly? My experience as a Visiting Professor confirmed my sense of anti-military PC, which is a nasty variant of anti-war sentiment. The book AWOL documents this to some degree (e.g. hostility among Ivy League faculty to ROTC generally). And there is no denying the political bias on campus among faculty.

Yes, economics departments are a refuge for economics-related arguments (which touch many areas, admittedly, such as statistical questions concerning race/class/gender). But the PC movement is about a lot more than capitalism v. statism. The Academy seems to have abandoned the idea of a canon, and with it the role of critical thinking generally. I'm no expert here, but I would not underestimate the damage already done.

Not that I am a pessimist. My hunch is that there will be ample competition to the formal Academy of the last century (see DIAMOND AGE by Stephenson).

Barkley Rosser writes:

It is a matter of public record that Summers was not fired over his remarks about women in science. This weakened him, as did his generally arrogant attitude towards much of the faculty and his lack of consultation in his various restructuring and "shaking up" campaigns, not to mention his periodic, and stupid, picking on certain prominent faculty, some of whom promptly picked up and left for better pay at places like Princeon.

No, the straw that broke the camel's back and led the Harvard Corporation to remove him was the fact that he lied to the faculty about Andrei Shleifer and his dealings with said gentlemen. There were prominent and leading faculty who backed Summers on the women in science contretemps who then changed sides when this came up and demanded his removal. It followed shortly thereafter.

Larry writes:

What lies did Summers tell? Wikipedia discusses the affair and cites none.

Barkley Rosser writes:

Larry (not Summers I presume),

Wikipedia? Good lord. That is not exactly the most reliable source around.

So, an article by David McClintock in Institutional Investor, 1/13/06 reported on Summers' relationship with Shleifer. It noted that although he supposedly recused himself from anything having to do with Harvard's settlement and dealings with the fallout from Shleifer's dealings in Russia, he had in fact "quietly asked Dean Knowles to protect Shleifer." You can access that article at

So, this article triggered questioning of Summers in a meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences the following month in which Summers denied having anything to do with Shleifer, citing his recusal from the case. This can be seen at, although much more of the meeting was taken up with the forced removal of Dean Kirby.

Anyway, I am willing to soften this by saying we are dealing with "misrepresentation" rather than "lying." But the reaction to this when it was realized that Summers' statements did not jibe with what had been reported was furious on the part of very influential faculty who had been supporting him. They did bring pressure on the Harvard Corporation, and this indeed was the final straw that brought about the forcing of his resignation as president. However, frankly, I must say that part of my knowledge of this comes from principals who do not wish to be publicly identified.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top