Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Why Does Lawrence Summers Keep Getting Work?

Here's a rather somber news item from Inside Higher Ed on recent trends in the political tendencies of the US professoriat.

The results of the study find a professoriate that may be less liberal than is widely assumed ... The authors of the study also found evidence of a significant decline by age group in faculty radicalism, with younger faculty members less likely than their older counterparts to identify as radical or activist.
The article includes this sobering chart:

Percentage of Faculty Members, by Age, Identifying as Left Radicals or Activists


Left Radicals

Left Activists










The authors of the study also note that:
Marxist identity was also low, but with less identifiable shift by age group (the range was 3.9 to 4.7 percent) and with the strongest disciplinary support in the social sciences (17.6 percent) and humanities (5.0 percent), with negligible support elsewhere.
The right's attack on academia has paid off it seems with universities shying away from the hiring and tenuring of overtly leftist faculty members. It appears that the LumpenProf will only get lonelier as the years pass. However, just to add a little extra dose of crap into this mix, the article quotes at length from Lawrence Summers who participated in the discussion at the presentation of these findings. Summers, the former President of Harvard and former Chief Economist for the World Bank commented:
... the extent of the imbalance and some informal research he has conducted “give me pause” and has him wondering about the possibility of bias against right-leaning thinkers. He examined the scholars being asked to give Tanner Lectures (a top lecture series at leading universities) and the political leanings of economists and political figures among honorary degree recipients at a top university (which he declined to name). Liberals receive more such honors by far, he said.

It’s not that there are no conservative professors, he said, but their share is so small as to raise questions that deserve more attention. Summers wondered if the situation isn’t like it was in the early days of baseball’s racial integration, when people trying to say equality had arrived could point to the relatively equal performance of black and white stars. “But it appeared that there were not any African-American .250 hitters,” Summers said. “The only [black] players who played were stars.”

I found this statement to be deeply shocking although, considering the source, I should have expected something of this sort. Summers is famous for making shockingly heinous pronouncements. During his stint at the World Bank, Summers authored a now infamous memo arguing that the World Bank should be "encouraging MORE migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs [Least Developed Countries]." While President of Harvard University, Summers called into question the scholarly chops and academic integrity of Cornel West (thus strengthening Princeton's Center for African-American Studies). This was followed by his remarks on the dearth of women faculty in the sciences as being due to the innate differences in intelligence between women and men. It's not every academic that manages to get his very own "Controversies" section in his Wikipedia article.

Now we learn from Summers that right wing faculty are just like African-American baseball players during the height of the civil rights movement. wtf?! Why does this man keep getting work?


  1. Summers is magnificent! He has a knack for lumbering solecism that makes me weep with envy. He is a hippopotamus ranging freely over the landscape.

  2. The radical/activist distinction is interesting, as is the fact that the younger folk have a higher identification with radical than with activist. I wonder why and what it means.

    The conservatism thing is interesting. I'm in a self styled left leaning humanities department and/but I recently was told to teach less Marx. I also related an anecdote I thought was funny - one of my students told me that when she saw the Marx on the reading list and the stuff on housework and women and said to herself "oh great, my teacher's going to be some kind of feminist communist." She told me this early on, but after she'd decided she liked me, adding "but now I see that's not the case" (implication being I'm not a communist because I'm reasonable and I'm not a feminist because I'm not a man). I thought it was funny and endearing. On hearing this, a faculty member told me I should revise my syllabus so the students don't get that impression, which really surprised me because I expect the story to get a laugh rather than concern bordering on admonition. (This faculty member is also very much not young and I think does identify as left.)
    take care,

  3. It seems like, in our department, that the more radical people are all at retirement age. I don't know if I'd call the younger people more conservative- it tends to be pretty hard to define them. As for the grad students, I don't know that we're great exemplars of anything. That might change with age though.

  4. Seems like there are a lot of different things going on in these stats. Speaking as one in the 35-49 age group, I wouldn't take it as a generational downward slope, necessarily. There was a very exceptional generation that went into academia as a platform for activism. Then, there's the effect of tenure -- you can say and do what you want, and you're more likely to be tenured if you're older. Then there's just age and experience and seeing a lot of crap go down in the world. I've called myself a radical since at least age 11 (to the dismay of my mother) but I have only called myself an activist since I was 32 or 33. Then, the youngest people in academia are facing a terribly competitive job situation in which the only solution seems to be "work harder." Who has time for activism when you're going from one adjunct job to another, trying to find the holy grail of long-term employment? This is probably the same reason why so many young male professors I know seem to have stay-at-home wives...not more conservative, necessarily, than the preceding generation; just trying to get by.