Topic: Professions & Institutions

Skewed Values at Harvard

When you have too much of something, it’s easy to waste it and easier still to shrug off the waste. This is what our mothers were getting at when they reminded us that the full plate of liver and onions we left uneaten would be joyously devoured by any of those “starving children in Europe.” That argument didn’t work very well on me when I was 10, and I suspect it’s not going to work very well on Harvard University now. But Harvard isn’t 10 years old; it’s 370. And it’s pouring 50 million dollars down the garbage disposal, not liver and onions.

You may recall that Harvard President Lawrence Summers had the bad taste, bad political instincts, or bad logic (depending on your point of view) earlier this year to suggest that one possible explanation for the relative paucity of women on university science faculties was the gender variations in human mental abilities. His rather benign meanderings on the topic were (predictably, but President Summers has a well-earned reputation for speaking before he thinks) received with as much horror from feminists and women’s rights advocates as if he had suggested that all female scholars would be better off barefoot and pregnant. Harvard’s reliably knee-jerk liberal faculty punished Summers for his heresy by giving him an embarrassing “no confidence” vote, which is Harvard faculty-ese for “Hey, Board of Overseers! Fire this sexist turkey!” Meanwhile, during the controversy Summers showed all the principled backbone of a sea anemone, and apologized profusely to anyone who would listen despite the fact that many commentators, including many respected academics, scientists, and policy-makers of both sexes, defended his statements as simply uncomfortable truth. He was obviously not willing to be a martyr to political correctness; after all, as Mel Brooks would say, “It’s good to be president of Harvard!”

So now the other shoe has dropped, in the form of a massive, 50 million dollar faculty diversity initiative. It is no secret, however, to alumni, students, and even the most ardent feminists that Harvard University has been diversity-obsessed for decades. Despite the recommendations of Harvard’s recently-released “Report of the Task Force on Women Faculty” (an earlier stage of Summers’ penance for unseemly candor), which, of course, had to recommend something, there’s not a heck of a lot Harvard can do to attract more top-notch female scientists to its faculty, since Harvard can and does outbid and out-credential all the other universities competing for their services. In diversity terms, Harvard is far from an “old boy network” any more, and for a formerly all male college, that’s quite a change. More women than men are admitted to Harvard College these days, for example. Harvard outreach programs to all minorities as well as women have been active and well-funded for a very long time, and the diversity of both the faculty and the student body will compare favorably to any other U.S. educational institution.

In other words, when we talk about needing another $50,000,000, Harvard’s faculty diversity efforts don’t. Their scholarship program does. The poor families of Cambridge, Mass. do. Even those starving children in Europe do. But no, Lawrence Summers, showing that he managed to absorb a few of the maneuvers of the Clinton Administration from which he came, realizes that a big check makes a big show. Thanks to that big check, all his critics know that he truly cares that there aren’t more women on the Harvard sciences faculties. But what he really cares about is keeping his job. The tricky part, ethically, is that Harvard has so much surplus money (its endowment is valued in the multi-billions) that one 50 million expenditure, more or less, really doesn’t make much difference. The school still could spend that on additional scholarships, or the poor families in its back yard, or those starving Europeans. But none of those needs are enough to cause the university to take action. Mollifying its president’s critics, however, is evidently just the spur it needs.

As a general rule, The Scoreboard has little sympathy with the familiar but specious argument that expenditures are fungible and thus it is immoral, for example, for a city to spend money on a football stadium while there are homeless people on its streets. Expenditures, in the real world, often aren’t truly fungible. We value what we value and deal with needs in turn, based on priorities set by an unstable recipe of passion, reason, and practicalities. People want to watch football and the homeless need help, but if the public is eager to give their money to build a stadium and won’t give for homeless shelters, the ethical outrage isn’t the building of the stadium but the public’s lack of concern for the homeless. Not building the stadium won’t fix that. Only changing public values will.

And not spending 50 million dollars to fund a redundant diversity effort at Harvard won’t make the university any more generous on other matters, I suppose. This, however, is like building two stadiums for one football team while other real needs are ignored. It is more than unwise; it epitomizes the cynical and arrogant misuse of resources that only the blithely rich can undertake without shame. Harvard is supposed to be an institution that embraces and teaches values. The values this waste of funds supports are self-preservation, academic bullying, institutional cowardice, and toadying to interest groups.

It would be a lot more ethical to spend the money on liver and onions.

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