March 17, 2005

The faculty at Harvard University have delivered what the Boston Globe calls a "stunning rebuke" to university president Lawrence Summers. In a ballot on Tuesday, the faculty voted narrowly to back a resolution saying that they had no confidence in Summers's leadership.

I have no special insights into internal politics at Harvard. I don't know, if I did learn about them, whether I would be on the president's side or the faculty's. But this brouhaha at Harvard ought to tell us something about the nature of colleges and universities, something the average person doesn't know. Life inside them is about as vicious as institutional existence can get.

A little experience as a university faculty member or administrator makes clear why this is the case. Universities attract people who have both gigantic and extremely fragile egos. There is almost nothing one can say inside a university that will not produce an explosion of indignation, whose results linger not just for days and months, but for years.

It's ironic that the very institutions which are supposed to promote freedom of thought and speech are the places where those freedoms are most energetically assaulted.

I spent my life working in colleges and universities and there was a time when I was more idealistic about them than almost anyone. But experience gradually stripped that idealism away.

Obviously they make up an important feature of American cultural life. They are not about to go away. Parents continue obsessed by the thought that they are obliged to lay out twenty to thirty thousand dollars a year to give their children the benefit of what is called a college education. I did it myself for my two girls so I have no right to criticize anyone else for doing it. But I do think this: if the public became more fully aware of what actually happens in colleges that understanding might, over time, drain off some of the venom that rules there. Neither university presidents nor professors are people who deserve to be venerated. If that simple truth became more widely known then we might move towards having college personnel who do deserve our respect. We might even take a step towards shifting education towards the center of university concern. That's certainly not the position it occupies today.

©John R. Turner

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