A former Obama administration official and Harvard University president said college campuses are becoming a place of “creeping totalitarianism” in a recent interview with The Weekly Standard.
Lawrence Summers served as director of the National Economic Council under President Barack Obama. Before that, he served as Secretary of the Treasury under Bill Clinton, and was also president of Harvard from 2001 through 2006.
But despite his solid Democratic credentials, Summers told The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol during a lengthy interview that today’s campus culture is out of control.
“Whether it’s the President of Princeton negotiating with people as they took over his office over the names of schools at Princeton,” Summers said. “Whether it is attacks on very reasonable free speech having to do with adults’ right to choose their own Halloween costumes at Yale, whether it’s the administration using placemats in the dining hall to propagandize about what messages students should give their parents about Syrian refugee policy, there is a great deal of absurd political correctness.”
Summers was referencing very specific incidents within the Ivy League last fall. At Princeton University, students took over the president’s office to demand a variety of changes, including the purging of memorials to Woodrow Wilson. At Yale, Erika and Nicholas Christakis have stopped teaching for at least a term in response to attacks over an email Erika sent encouraging students not to become too upset over offensive Halloween costumes. And at Harvard, the school’s administration issued a hasty apology after its diversity office distributed a “placemat for social justice” teaching students to use liberal talking points when discussing politics with family over the Christmas holiday.
“I’m somebody who believes very strongly in diversity, who resists racism in all of its many incarnations,” Summer said. “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. And I think that’s hugely unfortunate. I think the answer to bad speech is different speech. The answer to bad speech is not shutting down speech.”
Summers also expressed little patience with the idea of microaggressions, saying that prioritizing comfort over knowledge would be a “very dangerous” decision.
“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 said. “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.”
“To regard it as one of life’s premier moral injustices to have to eat dinner under a portrait of Woodrow Wilson is to lose perspective on what is happening in the world,” he added.
Summers has had his own very personal encounter with the forces of campus activism. In 2005, he endured a severe backlash after he suggested at a conference that the relative lack of women in science and engineering could be a reflection of some inherent difference between the sexes. Summers’ comment resulted in a vote of no confidence by Harvard’s faculty, which is widely believed to have contributed to his resignation as Harvard’s president in early 2006.
Summers noted that the “creeping totalitarianism” on campus threatens to have a very real effect on classroom discourse.
“The idea that, for example … the law of rape [should] not be covered at Harvard Law School because it would be a painful experience for some law students, is one that it seems to me administrators should be denouncing, rather than sympathizing with,” he said. Summers wasn’t spinning his example from whole cloth. Harvard professor Jeannie Suk wrote a column in 2014 about professors being pressured to avoid certain words and topics in their classes to protect students’ fragile psyches.
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