Monday, August 25, 2003

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University news

Both the New York Times and the Washington Post have stories today on potent influences on the academy. The Times looks ar Harvard's president, Larry Summers. The Post looks at Microsoft.

The New York Times Magazine quotes one of Summers' friends at Harvard saying, "There are a lot of people on other parts of the campus I've met who just despise him. The level of the intensity of their dislike for him is just shocking."

Glenn Reynolds thinks this is because he's to the right of the "ideologically correct" academy. But this is less about ideology than power.

As the article makes clear, Summers is doing two things that scare a significant chunk of the faculty. First, Summers is centralizing power within his office, taking a more personal role in tenure and hiring decisions. In any university this would prompt grumblings, because it means a loss of autonomy for departments and schools.

Second, and much more important, Summers is taking a positivist approach to areas of thought that have historically been thought of as the humanities. The key grafs:

[T]he intellectual revolution that Summers says he hopes to capture in the new curriculum is not limited to science itself. ''More and more areas of thought have become susceptible to progress,'' he said, ''susceptible to the posing of questions, the looking at the world and trying to find answers, the coming to views that represent closer approximations of the truth.'' Tools of measurement have become ubiquitous, as well as extraordinarily refined....

The great universities have traditionally defined themselves as humanistic rather than scientific institutions. Summers's point is not so much that the balance should shift as that the distinctions between these modes of understanding have blurred, though clearly in a way that favors the analytic domains -- the soft has become harder, rather than the other way around.

Most faculty members at Harvard worry much more about this hard-soft spectrum than they do about the left-right one.... It is quite possible that just as Charles W. Eliot came to be seen as the man who brought the range of modern knowledge into the traditional university, so Summers will be seen as the man who decisively moved those universities toward increasingly analytical, data-driven ways of knowing.

Clearly, these preferences are starting to drive the tenured faculty around the bend:

I met professors who so thoroughly loathe the new president that they refuse even to grant his intelligence, perhaps because doing so would confer upon him a virtue treasured at Harvard. Despite the protections of tenure, virtually all of Summers's critics were too afraid of him to be willing to be quoted by name.

Those dumb enough not to recognize Summers' smarts are headed for a great fall (Bill Sjostrom points out just how savvy Summers must be). The next few years are going to be fun for those who write about Harvard.

The Post story is about the rise of Microsoft's influence on college campuses, and the inevitable backlash this is causing on campus. An example of the latter:

"[I worry] that in the face of budget shortfalls, universities will sacrifice their research autonomy, offering up curriculum and academic integrity to the highest bidder," said Mark Schaan, a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University who was part of a group of students at the University of Waterloo, the Canadian equivalent of MIT, who last year urged administrators to turn down Microsoft's donations.

That's the rhetoric. Here's an example of Microsoft's role in funding campus research:

Among those who say they have benefited from Microsoft's donations is Howard University associate professor Todd E. Shurn. Two years ago, he was struggling with how to best teach a multimedia class that would combine computer science, art and communications skills.

Two of Shurn's former students, who had gone on to work at Microsoft and had come back to Washington on a recruiting visit, had an idea: Why not build the class around Windows Media Player? The class could create a new interface, or "skin," for the program. The professor was intrigued. He fiddled around with the technology for a few days and concluded it was worth testing. Microsoft provided $5,000, software and books and sent one of its technicians to help set up the computers the students would be using. The experiment was a success, Shurn said, so much so that he expanded the project the next year to include a contest open to the entire school. Microsoft, of course, provided the money for the awards.

Boy, that is evil.

I have no doubt some of my fellow academicians are dreading the rise of these kinds of influences. I say, bring them on.

posted by Dan on 08.25.03 at 12:13 AM


"Most faculty members at Harvard worry much more about this hard-soft spectrum than they do about the left-right one...."

I do believe this is true. Moreover, the actual dimensions of animosity in academia cut in so many directions because they are primarily battles over ideas (including methodological ideas). That said, there may be a bit of correlation between the hard-soft and the left-right spectrum. The folks that have been pushing "softer and softer" (po-mos) tend to be the most (left) radical on campuses, often alienating even those who are "left of center." Conservatives and liberals often can ally in resistance to this trend. (Reference concern raised by Richard Dawkins or the book "Higher Superstition" - forgot the authors).

Now I do realize that some conservatives prefer a "soft" approach too, but it is not the kind of "po-mo" soft we've been seeing of late.

posted by: John Lemon on 08.25.03 at 12:13 AM [permalink]

To build upon what John said, he's right that far left postmodernist scholars are generally leading the fight against the positivist wave in social science. (This explains the left-wing name choice -- perestroika --for the "movement.") Many fights over empiricism in my political science seminars have revolved around one left-wing student or another rejecting positivism because, according to their worldview, "there's no such thing as absolute truth."

Conservative rejecters of positivism, conversely, tend to assert that there are absolute truths, but they can't be operationalized. (The ding an sich is missing in our dummy variables, so to speak.) Even with these sorts of reservations, I don't think "traditionalist"-conservative scholars are desperate enough to form a permanent alliance with the PoMo Marxist-feminist-postcolonial crowd against positivism.

posted by: Matthew on 08.25.03 at 12:13 AM [permalink]

Summers' anayltical approach of knowledge must be really threatning to the po-mos and other radical fellow travellers. As John L said in his comment, this analytical, knowledge and fact-driven approach is definitely a challenge to the "soft" approach, and Summers approach also does not does not approach academics as some sort of leftist theology. Kinda like folks I know goes on at my Univ. Here, leftist "scholars" first figure out wha they want their research to prove, and then they selectively work with secondary data, using statistical methods learnt at summer ICPRS courses at U-M, to prove that their 'research" proved the answer they wanted.

posted by: ronin on 08.25.03 at 12:13 AM [permalink]

When I read these articles, what hit me in the face was a "spectrum" not specifically mentioned in either, the "useful-useless knowledge" spectrum. As an outcast from academia who has struggled to remold herself in Washington (on a much less rarefied plane, similar to what Summers himself experienced)I would argue that this is the only split that really matters in the larger world. Summers (and Gates & Co) are determined to drag an ancient learning system back into the modern world; many academics see this as sullying the purity of their lifework. Too bad. With half of Americans in higher education, and all meant to at least aspire to this course (wrongly, I think) the question is what should they be learning? It strikes me that 20-30 million English (or, closer to home, history) majors is a poor investment in the future UNLESS the structure of the BA/BS system as a whole is revamped. This appears to be what Summers is aiming for and I say bring it on, baby.

posted by: Kelli on 08.25.03 at 12:13 AM [permalink]

ronin: it's ICPSR, not ICPRS. And (putting my ICPSR TA hat on here) there's nothing wrong with the stats courses at ICPSR, although (like any other course) you won't learn anything if you just show up and go through the motions.

Anyway, bad research is bad research, no matter how many fancy methods you throw at it. Unfortunately too many social scientists treat ignorance of quantitative research methods like a badge of honor, and therefore are ill-equipped to challenge bad research dressed up in fancy methodology. (Case in point: that Berkeley B.S., which was little more than an ideologically-motivated data mining exercise.) If Summers can change that culture at Harvard - IMHO a place that needs that culture challenged badly, notwithstanding the great work that King et al. do there - more power to him.

posted by: Chris Lawrence on 08.25.03 at 12:13 AM [permalink]

As for the power centralization issue, it's worth noting that Harvard is an extremely decentralized university and that, moreover, insofar as power is centralized at all, it's not really centralized in the office of the president. Rather, the Harvard Corporation, of which Summers is but one member of seven, holds the central authority. Most of the time this group is pretty much under the president's thumb, but currently five of the seven board members predate Summers' arrival.

Moreover, during the presidential search process, many board members were concerned about Summers' bull-in-a-china-shop reputation -- concerns that were only alleviated by personal assurances from Robert Rubin that Summers had changed his ways during his time as Secretary of the Treasury. As the Times Magazine article makes pretty clear, however, (and as I also know from my personal experience as a reporter on campus) ways have not been changed and Summers is as abrasive as ever. This does not, I think, bode well for his efforts since without strong backing from the corporation he has no real ability to centralize authority.

posted by: Matthew Yglesias on 08.25.03 at 12:13 AM [permalink]

Speaking from someone with a CS background in college, there is a downside to what Microsoft is doing. Such concentration on one company's products as opposed to good techniques in general does not a good education make. Turning college CS programs into nothing but MCSE certification programs is *not* a good idea.

That said, I've got no problem with MS making donations to universities, but it's important for the university not to let that largess cause them to forget that there is in fact non-MS software out there.

posted by: Aelph on 08.25.03 at 12:13 AM [permalink]

There's a GREAT, and I mean GREAT post on Jay Manifold's blog about the hard-soft spectrum, and why Summers is right. After describing a hugely lopsided discussion between a physics professor and a sociology professor following 3-Mile Island (worth the read for that alone), he cuts to the chase:

"The N just stands for 'not M.' People who are not type M are of type N. Type N people have no real mathematical skill."
- "Interesting," she said.
"It's more than that," I said. "It is fundamental. People of type N cannot argue science or technology with people of type M."
- "Why?"
"Because they always lose."
- "Are you sure?"
"Yes," I said. "They lose even when they are right."

See: The Two Cultures

posted by: Joe Katzman on 08.25.03 at 12:13 AM [permalink]

I hope that with all this "hard-soft" talk we are not merely talking about what has happened in Summers's own profession, economics. There much of the research work is simply dressing the banal with fancy math for publication. Instead, I was struck by Summers's desire to revamp the undergraduate curriculum, with particular attention to enabling students to have some familiarity with the most important areas of human culture. Summers's views on this are online at

posted by: thucydides on 08.25.03 at 12:13 AM [permalink]

This hard/soft N/M split is also linked to not being able to determine your level of competence. See (Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments). This has made me recognise what I am and (more importantly) am not qualified to give an opinion on.

posted by: A on 08.25.03 at 12:13 AM [permalink]

Terrific post, Daniel. It is worth noting as well that the NYTimes piece by Taub was exceptionally well written, a riveting piece of journalism.

posted by: Roger L.. Simon on 08.25.03 at 12:13 AM [permalink]

Back in my undergrad days in the mid 70s, I was double majoring in Physics and Sociology. It was easy to do, as a Sociology major had few required courses 8 or so, unlike the 20 in Physics. One of the courses was in computer modeling of social systems, based on the "Limits to Growth" book and software. One of the sociology profs teaching it encouraged me to go on to grad school and offered this pearl of wisdom on being a computation-oriented sociologist (paraphrasing): "It's great - you can BS the mathematicians with soc. jargon and the soc. people with the math." So, adding some rigor to the social sciences is long overdue. Didn't get the sociology degree, though. I had to choose between two required courses my senior year: Thermodynamics and "Personality, Social Structure, and Culture". Thermo won.

posted by: Edmund Hack on 08.25.03 at 12:13 AM [permalink]

Any possibility that the animosity towards Summers is because he is an economist? Most economists are loathed by all of the other social scientists in my own experience...

posted by: EcoDude on 08.25.03 at 12:13 AM [permalink]

...because their bs hits everyone where it counts the most - in the wallet, regardless of philosophical orientation.

posted by: rastajenk on 08.25.03 at 12:13 AM [permalink]

Just a detail that might be relevant here ... UC-Berkeley has, over the past 20 years or so, steadily increased its focus on "hard" subjects to the point that today about 80% of the undergrads are majoring in some sort of science or engineering. This would appear to be a response by the regents and administration to perceived problems with the school's reputation. It would be understandable that liberal arts faculty (to use the traditional term -- of course they don't seem to be "liberal" about anything other than sex any more) might not be pleased with this approach.

posted by: Chris on 08.25.03 at 12:13 AM [permalink]

Roger: There is at least one glaring error in the Traub piece (that unfortunately will fly over the head of anyone who isn't a political scientist); I can only hope Traub had better sources for the rest of the piece. Nonetheless it is riveting, as you say.

EcoDude: There's certainly that feeling among at least some social scientists, although for the life of me I can't understand why. Maybe it's the Nobel; none of the other social sciences have one (unfortunately).

posted by: Chris Lawrence on 08.25.03 at 12:13 AM [permalink]

i'm afraid i dont agree. this is all about ideology. the most significant thing said in the article was about how the faculty essentially "owns" the university. the lefty totalitarians who make up the faculty at harvard use this structure to ensure fealty to their political agenda. summers is threatening that structure and, thusly, their grip on power. no wonder they hate him so much.

posted by: ben on 08.25.03 at 12:13 AM [permalink]

Ben above said it.

If academics are so sure their leftist ideology is correct, why are they so terrified of conservative ideas coming into the academy? I think the answer is because they know left is so over. It's just a matter of time before their dusty remains are swept into the gutter of failed philosophies.

When true record of the past four decades is written, it won't be pretty. It'll make Ann Coulter's take on the 40's and 50's look like children at play.

The real infiltration didn't begin until it was clear that the public bought the lies told about FDR and the Commies in his government.

If Bush gets re-elected with any kind of a mandate, the process will be hastened. If Hillary get elected (the only alternative I can see) we're back to square one again and I can't bear to think of it.

posted by: erp on 08.25.03 at 12:13 AM [permalink]

Friends and neighbors. The left is shot; nothing (not even the Hildabeast) can save it.

I have a son (Jonathan) beginning UChicago this year who is interested in becoming an English Major (more like majoring in English actually).

He is very well versed in science and mathematics (my influence I like to think) and politically he leans libertarian. He is one of many.

I have insisted that he read Paglia's "Junk Bonds" essay and a lot of other anti-pomo stuff so he has some ammunition when the topic comes up. Interestinly enough he is quite adept at doing pomo analysis so he can pass for a multi-Oculti if required.

He was valedictorian at a pretty good high school so he has gotten a good education.

There are lots more like him just starting to move through the system. I have a LOT of hope for the future. In fact the future is so bright I need to wear shades while doing the thermal neutron dance.

posted by: M. Simon on 08.25.03 at 12:13 AM [permalink]

What struck me about the piece was just how far gone academia must be for someone like Summers to be the Weekly Standard's hero. The quote that springs to mind is when Taub asked him some question regarding left-right orientation and he came up with some sort of pomo/multi-culti mumbo jumbo about how conservatives, are like, so wrong because they think they that there's a "right way" to do things and it's most often the "white, European way". Yes indeed, Sharia law and English common law are both equally valid. Its just a cultural thing. He either actually believes this nonsense or it so permeates the culture that he feels he at least has to pay lip service to it in order to keep this job. Neither alternative is very encouraging.

posted by: Eric Deamer on 08.25.03 at 12:13 AM [permalink]

Agree with Kelli above. At most leading universities English, or Literature faculties generally, has been so degraded by structuralist and other nonsense that it's probably beyond saving.

I'd like to see more universities do away with it--replace it with a mandatory Great Books curriculum taught by critics like H Bloom who value the idiosyncratic, original genius-- and emphasize a rigorously analytical curriculum where there's no tolerance for Cornel West/Derrida-style BS.

For social sci majors this would entail something on the order of a SAIS curriculum, with lots of seminars in which students think and read closely and are forced to defend their conclusions, supplemented by training in biology and biological anthropology and psychology.

posted by: Tombo on 08.25.03 at 12:13 AM [permalink]

M. Simon ---

"I have insisted that he read Paglia's "Junk Bonds" essay and a lot of other anti-pomo stuff so he has some ammunition when the topic comes up. Interestinly enough he is quite adept at doing pomo analysis so he can pass for a multi-Oculti if required."

Don't worry, it's perfectly possible to graduate UChicago with an English concentration but without being brainwashed into pomo; it's even possible to do the same without a working definition of pomo that stretches much further than the one provided to Homer Simpson by one of his friends ("wierd for the sake of wierd).

I speak from experience--I've completed all of the required coursework for my English degree, and I doubt pomo (or many other such studies) will come up as I write a BA on the Federalist Papers. Just send your son to Prof. William Veeder, the master of close textual analysis.

posted by: Amanda on 08.25.03 at 12:13 AM [permalink]

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