The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Transcend political correctness and strive for human righteousness."... ...Anthony J. D'Angelo, The College Blue Book

Commentary of the Day - January 6, 2002: Harvard's Loss, Princeton's Gain?

According to a recent article in The New York Times, two key members of the Afro-American Studies Department at Harvard University are threatening to bolt the reservation.  Both Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who is Chair of Afro-American Studies at Harvard, and Cornel West, one of only 14 "University Professors" at Harvard, have been offered positions at Princeton.

Both professors apparently are unhappy that Harvard's new president Lawrence H. Summers, former secretary of the treasury in the Clinton administration, has not been as forceful on the issues of affirmative action and diversity at Harvard as they might desire.  Summers, on the other hand, is unhappy about the level of scholarship demonstrated by West in recent years.  Although West is a noted author, his recent scholarly productivity has consisted primarily of a rap CD and work as an advisor to the presidential campaigns of Bill Bradley and Al Sharpton.

According to the Times article, President Summers suggested that West might embark on a work of serious scholarship befitting his rank as a "University Professor", and that he might consider becoming a leader in the effort to reduce grade inflation at Harvard.  (As we have noted in a previous article grade inflation is rampant at the nation's oldest institution of higher education -- more than half the grades awarded in undergraduate classes at Harvard now are A's or A-'s.)

Mr. West apparently felt offended by these suggestions, and has threatened to "pick up his marbles" and to take Princeton up on its offer of a faculty position there.

Perhaps in the long run it would serve Harvard better if Mr. Gates and Mr. West did head for the bucolic atmosphere of Princeton, New Jersey. Unfortunately, ethnic studies programs and departments such as the Afro-American Studies Department at Harvard enjoy something less than a stellar reputation.  Many conservatives and neo-conservatives outside of academia, who oppose affirmative action and who often support "color-blind" admissions policies, regard these programs as just one more manifestation of political correctness.  And, sometimes with good reason, they consider them as hotbeds of political activism rather than locales for serious scholarly activity.  Within the academy scholars in the more traditional disciplines, though they may hold views similar to those of their colleagues in the "studies" departments, regard these programs as "trendy" and the scholarship that they produce as "weak".

Unfortunately, too many of the faculty members in these "studies" departments lend support to the arguments of their critics by spending too much time on political activism and not enough time on serious scholarship.  In the view of the Irascible Professor, America has not yet reached the state where issues of race, ethnicity, and class no longer matter.  There should be room in the academy for the serious investigations of these and related issues.

However, before the results of such work will be deemed credible by a wide audience, we must have confidence that the investigators are adhering to strict standards of scholarship.  Here is where a prestigious institution like Harvard can make a real contribution.  Let West and Gates move on.  Hire scholars to replace them who have the competence and objectivity needed to produce work of the highest quality on issues of the highest impact.  (A more recent Times article suggests that Summers is backtracking from his earlier exhortations.  In the IP's view this is an opportunity lost.)

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