Friday, January 19, 2007

Inconvenient Truths in the Academy...and Student Hedonism

By Richard Vedder I was asked yesterday afternoon to testify before the Joint Economic Committee of Congress along with Larry Summers, former Treasury of the Secretary and President of Harvard (the testimony likely will be aired on CSPAN on January 31; live testimony is at 9:30 a.m.) That reminds me that I wanted to blog about Summers and his travails at Harvard, and what it says more generally about academe. Most of the news is bad, but some is good.

The bad news is that Summers lost his job for telling the truth. He was (and is) undiplomatic, blunt, not smooth, not "Presidential" in the university sense of the word. But the things that pushed him (and Harvard) over the edge were his utterances -- his speech. He had the nerve to tell a senior faculty member, Cornell West, that it was time for him to get back to serious work instead of doing rap records and issuing polemics. Since West was a well known African-American scholar, that was a doubly big no-no. Then he made the factually correct observation about women being underrepresented in math and science which caused a huge brouhaha. To borrow from Al Gore (something I am seldom prone to do), Summers spoke "inconvenient truths." The academy is supposed to be about spreading the truth, but today, if the truth is inconsistent with prevailing ideological fads, often you are expected to disguise it. The Age of Enlightenment beginning in the 18th century may be coming to an end, replaced by a secular form of left-wing theology/ideology that is less ennobling then the earlier Christian theology that constrained thought during the middle ages and into the Renaissance. For it to happen at Harvard is a really bad thing.

The good news, however, is that this incident had the unintended consequence of increasing the accountability of university presidents everywhere. In the wake of the Harvard incident, presidents went by the wayside at several other institutions (e.g. Case Western Reserve University). This is not necessarily good (ideologically crazed faculty could do the same thing as they did at Harvard), but it at least suggests that university presidents are accountable not only to usually compliant boards of trustees, but to others as well.

All of this leads me to ask: why should we publicly fund institutions that often suppress the truth, violating their very mission to society? And why should we publicly fund schools that do not make their students work very much? The NSSE results showing seniors study on average 13 hours a week are shocking, but ignored. To borrow from Ben Wildavsky, who wrote the marvelous first draft of the Spellings Commission report, why should we subsidize "hedonistic" college students in country club settings?

With that, I am off on a cruise to Nowhere to recharge the batteries for the battles ahead. Cheers.


Anonymous said...

Can I go with you and bring a cooler of beer and sandwiches?

Anonymous said...

P.S. - You guys need to switch over to the new blog version.