Larry Summers is one of the most important economists in the world. He’s been the chief economist at the World Bank. He was Treasury Secretary under President Clinton. He was director of the National Economic Council under Obama. And from 2001 to 2006, he was president of Harvard.
On the new McCarthyism and the future of higher education:
BW: You and I both know that the list of unsayable things and verboten subjects has grown unbelievably long since you gave a speech in 2005 about the lack of gender diversity in STEM that caused a lot of controversy. Now, even basic ideas like human biology or the idea that merit is a good thing are considered circumspect. What do you think of the war on merit?
LS: I think it’s a profound problem that it’s much more difficult on university campuses to venerate excellence, to celebrate accomplishment, to assert that there are greater and lesser truths, and to welcome iconoclasm. This is not a new phenomenon. In the 1950s, McCarthyism ran rampant. Those who had had past Communist affiliations, even if what they were doing was teaching chemistry, came into question. There were serious efforts by alumni to cancel the teaching of Keynesian economics because it was seen as subversive to the American way. All of that was terrible. It was the original McCarthyism.
The new McCarthyism around a different set of subjects is no less troubling, and it is a profound threat to American universities. When something profoundly threatens American universities, it, in turn, threatens the formative experiences of the people who will be leading our country a generation from now. It threatens the ability to develop the new ideas and conceptions that ultimately shape society, whether those are new cures for cancer or new understandings of human relations that led gay marriage to be widely accepted—something that would have been inconceivable a generation ago. It’s very dangerous for universities to become epistemically closed communities dedicated to social comfort. I worry about that every day.
BW: If you were president of Harvard right now, what would you do to ensure that an environment of free thought and speech is protected?
LS: I would very visibly try to invite speakers from a range of areas who challenge our local orthodoxies and make clear that I want to hear what they have to say. Not because, in most cases, I agree with them, but because I would think and speak more clearly for having considered their arguments.
BW So, would you invite Ron DeSantis to campus?
When I was president, I accepted every invitation I received to speak to the Federalist Society, not because I agreed with what the Federalist Society said on many issues, but because I thought it was important that those views be considered on our campus. I would try to provide support, as I did in many quiet ways during my time as president, for students who somehow felt beleaguered or challenged.
And when there was a call to divest Israel from our endowment, I did not simply say what was said on many other campuses, which was that divestiture is a problematic tool for achieving political purposes. I labeled the call antisemitic in effect, if not in intent. I felt that if Harvard actually did divest and did it uniquely to Israel, the signal would be antisemitic.