Thursday, February 28, 2013

In Today's Inbox

Several interesting pieces today, touching on themes in which I am interested. No time for a lot of blogging but here are quick links:

Today's Crimson has a good piece called The Fall of Academics at Harvard. The thesis is that Harvard students care more about winning and prestige than they care about learning, and that has something to do with the so-called "cheating scandal." I am quoted several times, and some of my comments are more temperate than others. The important question behind the thesis is, of course, who is to blame and what can be done about it. I think Howard Gardner's comments are excellent for the most part (though I wonder: do a lot of Harvard students really aim for Hollywood?). The absence of any comment from the University leadership is unfortunate, not sure whether that is a problem with the reporting or what.

The Nation has a piece called University Presidents—Speak Out! It hits on a theme that has been troubling me, the lack of moral voice from universities, and the tendency of their leaders to value inoffensiveness a bit too much. Unfortunately the writer makes the standard mistake about Larry Summers, casting him as the victim of a faculty rebellion triggered by his women-in-science speech, rather than by his role in the Shleifer affair. And I disagree with his thesis that university presidents can step out of their presidential roles to speak personally without using the university itself as their bully pulpit. As a commenter says, I doubt The Nation would be trumpeting the courage of a university president who went around the country giving heartfelt anti-abortion speeches. When you become a university president you do sacrifice some of your freedom of speech as you assume the moral cloak of the university, to the extent one exists.

And I just want to link to this blog post by Internet scholar Christian Sandvig about a professor at the National Technical University in Singapore who was denied tenure apparently for publishing an editorial opinion piece in a Singaporean newspaper discussing some aspects of the political philosophy of Hannah Arendt. Hardly high-test radical stuff, but the university seems to acknowledge that it was the killer in the tenure case, citing "non-academic factors." Though I care about academic freedom, I wouldn't ordinarily get exercised about what was happening inside a foreign university. But Singapore is the home of Yale's new branch campus, and it raises again the questions of how the university is going to run a liberal arts college in a country that does not respect the right to challenge authority, even a little.

Added 8:30pm 2/28: Apparently the Crimson did not ask the University to comment for the "Fall of Academics Story." Too bad.


  1. You admit that a university president who gave anti-abortion speeches might not keep his job, but a president who gave pro-abortion speeches would not. The same could be said about other issues, such as gay marriage or affirmative action -- only the conservative position is risky for a university president's career.

    If the universities are firmly on the side of the political left, why should the House Republicans, who still have a majority, want to fund their adversaries?

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