Larry Summers II Transcript

Table of Contents

I: Political Correctness on Campus (00:15 – 26:46)
II: Universities and the Pursuit of Knowledge (26:46 – 36:35)
III: Israel Boycotts and ROTC (36:35 – 58:28)
IV: The Future of Higher Education (58:28 – 1:14:46)

I: Political Correctness on Campus (00:15 – 26:46)

KRISTOL: Hi, I’m Bill Kristol. Welcome back to CONVERSATIONS. I’m very pleased to have with me again today Larry Summers, President Emeritus and University Professor here at Harvard.

We’re doing this here right near Harvard. What’s going on? What’s going at Harvard? What’s going on in higher ed? As someone, like me, who is attached to Harvard and has a respect for American higher education, but a little bit appalled by the last few months, but maybe I’m wrong or missing something. Tell me.

SUMMERS: Look, Bill. The main thing that’s happening is what always happens: professors teach courses, students take courses, students aspire to graduate, they make friends, they plan their lives, they have a formative experience, they are educated. And anybody who thinks that that’s not the main thing going on on college campuses is making a mistake. That said –

KRISTOL: I feel better.

SUMMERS: That said, it seems to me whether it’s the President of Princeton negotiating with people, as they took over his office, on the name of schools at Princeton. Whether it is the kind of 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 when they come home.

There is a great deal of absurd political correctness. Now, I’m somebody who believes very strongly in diversity, who resists racism in all of its many incarnations, who thinks that there is a great deal that’s unjust in American society that needs to be combated, 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. Whether it’s climate deniers – I yield to no one in my degree of confidence that the scientific evidence points to overwhelming evidence that there is a serious global climate change problem, but atmospheric scientists who disagree with that conclusion should be able to have their say.

I was proud to write a brief as President of Harvard in support of affirmative action. And I think that’s the right position, and I hope the Supreme Court will uphold it, but those who feel differently should be able to have their say. And, the idea that, for example – this took place in recent years, a serious suggestion is put forward that the law of rape 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.
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. And 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.

Lost, in terms of the education of students. Lost, in terms of a model for society, based on the authority of ideas rather than the idea of authority. And based on what will be lost if what’s comfortable is prized over what’s uncomfortable. Because what history teaches – the history of ideas, if anything, teaches that the greatest progress almost always involves ideas that are initially hugely uncomfortable for the existing order.

KRISTOL: And liberal education is always about making people uncomfortable. Uncomfortable in one way or another. Socrates made people uncomfortable.

SUMMERS: If liberal education doesn’t – I would go so far as to say that if you come home after your freshman year in college with no fundamental preconception that you had shaken, your freshman year in college has not been a success, and so the whole idea of privileging comfort seems to me to be a very dangerous one. But it is one that is increasingly fashionable on campuses.

KRISTOL: I’ve been struck by that. I think you’d also agree if all your professors are moving to simply replace one set of preconceived ideas with another that’s not the point either. You want challenges to conceptions among your professors and among your students on campus –

SUMMERS: I had the experience some years ago of attending a commencement ceremony at a different university – not Harvard – where I was fortunate enough to be receiving an honorary degree. The President of that university gave a very powerful commencement address, but at one point said, “Here at this university, we consider every argument, analyze every question, process every bit of data, ponder every text, engage in intense conversation on every subject. And out of that comes . . .”

And I waited. And I expected the answer to be something like, “A closer approximation to the truth we will never find.” Or, “A better understanding of the world.” And instead what I heard was, “A better understanding of each other’s positions.” And that idea that privileged the equal respectability of all positions, the idea that there wasn’t a way of making progress through debate, but all that came was a greater understanding of each other’s positions seem to me to deny the basic methods and modes of thought that had driven so much progress over the last 200 years.

Whether it was scientific progress that enables us to live the way we live today, or whether it was progress with respect to ideas that’s led to the very different way that women live relative to men compared to what was the case 100 years ago.

That idea that there was no such thing as changing one’s position in the face of being unable to defend it in a compelling way, that seemed to me so antithetical to what should be academic values. But at the same time, it seemed to all of those around me to be so much a commonplace that I think there is a serious epistemic challenge in terms of the modes of thought that prevail in many parts of university communities.

KRISTOL: And what do you think happen? I agree. I sort of went from – let’s say, among conservatives, I was probably one of those somewhat minimizing – I made fun of political correctness and thought it was a bad thing and unfortunate for students who had to put up with it, but didn’t think it was really a serious threat to freedom of inquiry, freedom of speech.

Even freedom of thought, to some degree, for the undergraduates, especially. It’s one thing if you’re already faculty – tenured faculty – you can keep your thoughts to yourself if it’s too painful, if you’re going to get too much pressure if you say something. But you won’t stop thinking.

But if you’re 19 years old and you’ve sort of been told certain things are out of bounds, then you may not even inquire in the first place and you won’t learn the arguments against your own position, you might not change your mind, and you might not understand your own position better. Mill makes that point in On Liberty, right? Unless you’ve heard the other arguments, you won’t test your own.

Now, I am more alarmed – I have to say – trying to talk to students over the past six months or a year. What happened? The faculty didn’t change that radically, presumably. Administrators? Is it really a student-led thing?

SUMMERS: I’d say two things. One, take a group that you know better than I, and a group that on 97 percent of all questions I disagree with, The Federalist Society. The Federalist Society has probably been the most successful effort to nurture within academic communities a set of ideas, based in law schools. Has driven a whole set of conservative jurisprudence, almost all of which, I want to be absolutely clear, I oppose. But it always impressed me that they were always willing to invite any progressive who would come, to come and denounce what they had to say. Over the years, I’ve attended a number of their events, and, you know, argued in very vigorous ways for more active approaches to economic regulation or progressive taxation than they favored.

But they always wanted to have the debate. And that, it seems to me, is something that many on the more numerous Left side of the spectrum in universities have been too reluctant to do and too quick to dismiss those they disagree with as irresponsible or not worthy of being – not worthy of being heard.

I think that it’s gotten worse for a combination of reasons, I would guess. What happened in Ferguson, Missouri and in some other places has been jarring with respect to the national psyche. I think there’s a kind of intellectual contagion across college campuses, and when this starts in one place, it has a tendency to spread.

I think the weakness of – the weakness of administrators who have often had as their dominant instinct to placate rather than to educate has emboldened those who see their moment to establish a kind of orthodoxy. And, I think that there may be an element in this generation’s just come to feel that there’s a set of narrower range of what’s acceptable.

You have to recognize that social norms are, can be a good thing. And at the same time, shutting down debate can be a bad thing. And there’s a line. The set of things, the set of ways in which a homosexual can be described in socially acceptable terms is completely different than it was when you and I were in college, and that is a mark of progress for us as a society towards being a more tolerant and just society.

The other side of that is going to be that sometimes it’s going to go too far and that it’s going to have the effect of cutting off or limiting debate. And that’s a balance that has to be struck. I think it’s a mistake to be an absolutist on these things.

Take a somewhat broader question that implicates education, Bill, that goes beyond universities, the fact that we had a national summit in the White House on bullying. How should one think about that? On the one hand, one can say, “Oh come on, kids will be kids. Kids have to work out their own problems.” On the other hand, there’s been a lot of cruelty. Many people have died by their own hand because of the shame and the difficulty they’ve had in encountering bullying. Perhaps, it is a sign of our greater humanity as a society that we’re now able to define bullying as a problem.

So I think one makes a mistake in just trying to laugh off the concerns that lead to political correctness. At the same time, I think there are some very real excesses, and certainly, I think that the excesses of administration rhetoric at many universities have been a real problem.

I think this is a case actually where satire and ridicule have been effective. I think the efforts of the number of Harvard students to mock the placemats were in a way more effective than thoughtful critiques of political correctness. I’ve actually been gratified that on most of the campuses where these things that seem quite odd to me have taken place there have been student movements of protest and student movements of concern that have risen up.

My guess is that we’ll find our way back towards some equilibrium. I think it is the responsibility and a responsibility that’s not being fully met of academic leaders to address these issues.

KRISTOL: What’s striking for outsiders, as you said, were the protests were at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton – not exactly hotbeds of, you know, right-wing sentiment or even of people, really. And the people who they went after – this poor housemaster and his co-housemaster. I guess that’s a term we’re not going to use much longer. Head of the house, or whatever you’re supposed to say. At Yale, who were liberals, I mean – there’s that pathetic YouTube where he’s trying to say, “I’m with you. I’ve been a liberal all my life; I’ve devoted my life to helping liberal causes.”

That’s what’s sort of striking from the outside. I think we can argue about Ferguson, Missouri – they’ve got a real issue of police departments and minorities and how to do policing. Those are real policy issues. But what seems crazy from the outside about some of the stuff in colleges and universities –

SUMMERS: There are morally serious things happening. There are people being slaughtered. There are people who aren’t safe on streets who should be protected. To regard it as one of life’s premiere moral injustices to have to eat dinner underneath the portrait of Woodrow Wilson is to lose perspective on what is happening in the world, and I think it’s the job of adults to provide some perspective on that.

But it’s very important not to recognize that this isn’t part of something that has a lot of – it’s not that there’s no merit in the kinds of concerns that are being expressed. In some ways, it’s like, you know, I showed my students a little bit of photography and video of what happened at Harvard in the late 1960s when, you know, there was offices that were, came close to being burned. And when administrators were, I think it’s fair to say, forcibly and physically removed from their offices. Students today were shocked that something like that could have happened, and it was an appalling time and what was done was appalling. But it wasn’t that the Vietnam War wasn’t a grave mistake.

I think that that kind of perspective is a useful perspective to have in viewing all of this. But I don’t think we’re going to get to the bottom of understanding the huge sets of social problems that we have in our country if we’re not able to engage in open and free factual inquiry with debate and with the recognition that there may be offensive policy recommendations but there aren’t offensive facts. All facts should be matters of open and clear inquiry.

KRISTOL: I think as you sort of suggested the trivializing of what can be genuinely important causes is bad actually for those who want to advance those causes because then it just looks to people outside the university world and people who maybe aren’t that sympathetic to some of those liberal causes in the first place, well, this is all just crazy. Renaming schools and placemats and so forth.

One last word about the present, and then I want to go back to your own experience as you’ve been through this so much. The administrators do seem – the students are students; they’re 19 years old; I don’t blame them for too much. They should be punished, in my opinion, if they do things that are really beyond the bounds, but they shouldn’t be yielded to.

The faculty seem to not have been terribly prominent, one way or the other, in most of these issues. What has been striking is the administrators who I do think a generation ago would have not capitulated quite as quickly to what in many cases are just ridiculous demands and aspersions on the campuses they’ve been running. I mean, if Princeton is a racist place, you’d think the President of Princeton would think, “Gee, I’ve been President of Princeton for a while, I can’t just sort of accept this argument.”

It’s slander, also, on all the people of Princeton. I am a little startled by the administrators’ unwillingness to defend what you’d think are their own institutions and their own places they’ve been their whole lives and so forth. The administrators seem to be different from what they once were.

SUMMERS: I think it’s hard to know in historical perspective. I personally had strong feelings about this. Just before I became President of Harvard, the President’s office was occupied for two weeks over the issue of the wages that Harvard paid its workers. And the students left after two weeks with a number of concessions having been made. And with the administrators who occupied those offices, clapping for the students as they left, who, in many cases, had been fed through the windows with milk and cookies by members of the university’s administration, with total amnesty for all. And I have to say I thought it was appalling.

And I made clear, with the support of the Harvard overseers and corporation – basically, the trustees of the institution – we had a code with respect to rights and responsibilities – and if offices were occupied after warnings were given and people remained in those offices, there would be disciplinary consequences. I’m not sure, Bill, that you’re quite as right to entirely exempt the faculty.

KRISTOL: I’m happy not to.

SUMMERS: I think that one of the issues is that the tradition and the custom in universities is that student discipline is a faculty matter, and I think one of the challenges for administrators is they can’t rely on the faculty to carry through on discipline even in very egregious cases, like the physical occupation of offices, and that then affects the amount of leverage that administrators have.

And so, I think there is a – I think a lot of this does go back to a faculty who tend – very much particularly the faculty who take the greatest interest in university affairs – who tend very much to be sympathetic to protest movements of one kind or another.

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