Former Harvard President blasts ‘absurd political correctness’ on campuses
Larry Summers, a former president of Harvard University and economist for both the Clinton and Obama administrations, bemoaned the “absurd” degree of political correctness on America’s college campuses in an interview Tuesday, defying liberal orthodoxy on several specific controversies.
“I'm somebody who believes very strongly in diversity, who resists racism in all of its many incarnations,” Summers says in an interview with Bill Kristol of The Weekly Standard. “But it seems to be that there is a kind of creeping totalitarianism in terms of what kind of ideas are acceptable and are debatable on college campuses.”
"The answer to bad speech is not shutting down speech."
He goes on to cite several prominent examples, all of which have been reported in greater detail by Campus Reform.
First, Summers refers to the President of Princeton University, Christopher Eisgruber, criticizing him for “negotiating with people as they took over his office.” At issue in the 32-hour standoff was the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, which the protesters demanded be changed in recognition of Wilson’s vehement and well-known racism.
The resolution signed by Eisgruber, however, went far beyond merely agreeing to discuss the removal of memorials to Wilson, containing stipulations that the university would expand “cultural competency training,” designate four rooms for “cultural affinity groups,” and even pursue the creation of special “Affinity Housing” reserved for students of color.
Summers also mentions “attacks on very reasonable free speech having to do with adults' right to choose their own Halloween costumes at Yale,” referring to the controversy that erupted at the university in November over an innocuous email, outrage over which eventually drove two professors to cancel their course offerings.
The spark that started the firestorm at Yale was an email to students from Silliman College Associate Master Erika Christakis, composed as a rebuttal to a previous email from administrators warning students against potentially offensive Halloween costumes. Christakis merely expressed her opinion that freedom of speech is more important than avoiding offense, but attracted the ire of some students by suggesting that it is acceptable to be “a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive.”
Protests calling for her resignation began almost immediately, one of which resulted in a confrontation between student activists and Erika’s husband Nicholas, who is also the Master at Silliman College. Despite the aggressive questioning and borderline-hysterical lamentations of the students, video footage of the incident showed Christakis standing his ground in defense of free speech, even the offensive variety, though both Christakises ultimately chose to avoid further conflict and withdraw from teaching for the time being.
Summers’ final example of “absurd political correctness” is vaguer, referring only to “the administration using placemats in the dining hall to propagandize about what messages students should give their parents about Syrian refugee policy.”
His circumspection is perhaps understandable, though, given that his very own Harvard was behind the placemats, which also coached students on how to respond should their family members express skepticism toward the recent campus protests, Yale’s decision to abandon the “House Master” title, or the Black Lives Matter movement.
Just one day after Campus Reform first called public attention to the blatantly propagandistic placemats, administrators were forced to apologize for distributing the placemats, which they petulantly conceded were “not effectively presented.”
“I think the answer to bad speech is different speech,” Summers told Kristol after presenting the examples. “The answer to bad speech is not shutting down speech."
Summers also addressed the related issue of microaggressions, which have become a popular target for activists seeking to purge their campuses of all potentially offensive speech.
“The idea that somehow microaggressions in the form of a racist statement contained in a novel should be treated in parallel with violence or actual sexual assault seems to me to be crazy,” he declared. “I worry very much that if our leading academic institutions become places that prize comfort over truth—that prize the pursuit of mutual understanding over the pursuit of better and more accurate understanding—then a great deal will be lost.”
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