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Failing Grade

SOME OF MY BEST FRIENDS ARE professors. Many of my relatives, too. I'd probably be one myself, had I done better in graduate school. But, this week at least, I'm glad I chose another line of work, because the most prestigious professoriate in the world, Harvard's, has just made an ass of itself.

It has done so by toppling President Lawrence Summers, who resigned rather than face a second faculty no-confidence vote, which he seemed set to lose. In explaining the coup, conservatives will cite political correctness. They'll say that, by challenging African American Studies Professor Cornel West and musing about the relationship between gender and scientific aptitude, Summers ran afoul of the left-wing dogmatism that dominates campus life. But that gives the faculty too much credit. It lets them pretend they were defending some abstract ideal, some principle larger than their own self-interest. The truth is far shabbier: The Harvard faculty deposed Lawrence Summers because he wanted them to care about something beyond themselves.

First, Summers wanted tenured professors to teach. And not just that; he wanted them to teach large undergraduate survey courses. Summers noticed what people have been noticing for a long time: Students at Harvard--and at other prestigious universities--often graduate without the kind of core knowledge that you'd expect from a good high school student. Instead, they meet Harvard's curricular requirements with a hodgepodge of arbitrary, esoteric classes that cohere into nothing at all. Summers wanted to change that, perhaps by making students take overview courses that gave them a general introduction to different disciplines. The problem is that those are exactly the kinds of courses Harvard professors don't want to teach. Most professors are specialists. They want to delve ever more deeply into their particular research areas. The more their teaching tracks that research, the easier their lives are. So they offer classes on obscure micro-topics. The last thing they want is to bone up on introductory material they forgot in graduate school. Summers, who made a point of teaching a freshman seminar himself, thought perhaps they should. And, for that, he was accused of not respecting the faculty. When he mentioned reviving Harvard's introductory art history survey to one top professor in the department, she responded that no self-respecting scholar would want to teach such a course. "Are we citizens or employees?" asked another professor, pretentiously. How naïve of Lawrence Summers: He actually thought they might be teachers.

Summers certainly wasn't opposed to research. But he was impolitic enough to ask various departments to explain why their research mattered. He evidently believed that, as president of the world's premier university, asking probing questions about the direction of academic disciplines was part of his job. The poor fool. He even had the temerity to ask West, one of only 19 "university professors," a rank supposedly reserved for the greatest scholars in the world, what he was doing. The confrontation exploded because West is high-profile and black. But he wasn't the only university professor who was asked about his work. And, for many faculty, the really offensive part wasn't that Summers confronted a black faculty member. It's that he asked any tenured faculty member to justify how they spent their time. "Once someone's a tenured professor," one professor told The Chronicle of Higher Education, "if he wants to write articles for The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times instead of doing his scholarship, he has every right to do that. Once someone is a tenured professor, they answer to God. It's as simple as that." Summers thought it was a little more complicated: He thought that tenured professors had a responsibility to cultivate more than their own egos. It's unlikely his successor will make the same mistake.

Finally, Summers thought it was a problem that roughly 90 percent of Harvard seniors were graduating with honors. The Ivy League considers itself a bastion of meritocracy. But, as Summers understood, Harvard's shameless grade inflation mocks that pretense. By giving almost everyone very high grades, Harvard promotes the fiction that virtually all of its graduates are academic superstars--and obscures those who actually are. Worse, it punishes those less exalted universities naive enough to believe that a mediocre student deserves a C. As a result, students with honest transcripts find themselves at a disadvantage when competing for jobs or graduate school.

But, for professors, giving everyone absurdly high grades is the path of least resistance. The last thing an academic wants is angry students showing up at her office door, trying to appeal their grades. Far easier to preemptively capitulate, which seems to be what the Harvard faculty thought Summers would do as well.

Even more than professors, one might have expected Harvard students to rebel against Summers's crusade against grade inflation. But they didn't. In fact, despite all the news reports about how controversial Summers was at Harvard, he doesn't seem to have been that controversial among students at all. An online poll found that only 19 percent of undergraduates believed Summers should resign. A New York Times Magazine profile noted that virtually "every student who has actually had contact with Summers has come away liking him." And, while the faculty passed a no-confidence vote against him last year, graduate students in the arts and sciences rejected one. One wonders, in fact, what might happen if Harvard students were given the chance to vote no-confidence in their professors.

Perhaps none of this really matters. In this era of conservative power, in which politicians are more likely to run against America's top universities than to learn from them, Harvard is largely irrelevant. But that was part of Summers's project: to challenge the narcissism that makes Harvard easy to ignore. It's why he has made it easier for students to participate in ROTC. It's why he waived tuition for families making less than $40,000 a year. It's why he wanted professors to do useful research and students to learn basic knowledge. As one of the few contemporary college presidents who tried to turn liberal ideals into government policy, rather than just opining about them from the ivory tower, he wanted Harvard to serve the nation, not merely itself. And, when Harvard hired him five years ago, that's what it said it wanted, too. Now we know the truth.

This article originally ran in the March 6, 2006, issue of the magazine.