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CRIMSON FACES AT HARVARD



Published: Wed, January 16, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



CRIMSON FACES AT HARVARD

Chicago Tribune: Regular readers of the sports pages probably were better equipped than anyone else to understand the dispute at Harvard University that has had tongues wagging throughout academia over the last couple of weeks.

Sports fans know well of the disgruntled star who demands to be traded because he just can't get along with the new manager, or the coach who can't seem to handle and get the best out of the high-priced superstar.

Both of these phenomena are the results of a small and intensely competitive marketplace of talent, a market that those who know how can manipulate to their financial, emotional and every other kind of advantage.

More than race or the quality of scholarship, it is the similar dynamics of the academic marketplace that underlie the spat between Harvard President Lawrence Summers and Cornel West, one of the stars of Harvard's Afro-American Studies Department.

Summers, a former secretary of the Treasury who assumed the Harvard presidency last July, and West, a professor of religion who came to Harvard in 1994, met privately in October. Summers has declined to discuss the meeting, but West said he was treated with such disrespect that he wanted to "resign on the spot."

Mutual respect: Despite a subsequent meeting that both men say ended in an atmosphere of mutual respect, West said he still was considering leaving Harvard for Princeton University, where he taught from 1988 to 1994. And several of his colleagues on the so-called "dream team" of Harvard's Afro-American Studies Department indicated they might go with him.

Any such defections would be an enormous blow to Harvard and a coup for Princeton. But that's the way the game is played in the academic big leagues.

Faculty members at Harvard, Princeton and other big research universities are academic entrepreneurs. Teaching ability is, at best, only part of what they bring to the marketplace. What counts most is their scholarship -- the research they do, the books they publish. It is those that enhance an institution's reputation and attract research grants and graduate students.

West and Harvard struck a deal in 1994. He would gain the prestige and emoluments that go with being a "university professor" (Harvard has only 20 of them). Harvard would gain the services of one of the country's highest-profile black academics, whose main work, it appears, was to keep his profile (and Harvard's) high by being a "public intellectual."

Summers, an economist, arrived with a more traditional notion of what a university professor ought to be and do. That's a university president's right. But ironically, the economist apparently didn't understand the rules of the marketplace in which he and his hot-commodity professor were dealing. Needless to say, he does now.




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