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Larry Summers: Elite universities are largely failing to meet the challenges of the Trump era

Harvard Commencement (Ian Lamont/Flickr)

Last week I was questioned by Rebecca Blumenstein on American universities at the New York Times Higher Education Conference. The video is here and a brief excerpt is here.

After Rebecca asked me to reflect on my turbulent Harvard presidency, our conversation focused on how elite universities are meeting the challenges of the Trump era. I'm afraid I am quite negative on several counts.

First, by placing much less emphasis on economic diversity relative to other dimensions of diversity, we are perpetuating the divisions that brought Trump to power. I'm proud of what we did at Harvard during my presidency to make college free for students with family income under $60,000 and to step up recruitment of students from disadvantaged backgrounds and the way these policies have been emulated. But it remains the case that we make far less effort to recruit, admit and educate economically disadvantaged students than we do to recruit economically advantaged minority students. I think that is wrong and should be fixed by stepping up efforts around equal economic opportunity. Promoting equal economic opportunity draws more talent into leadership, promotes fairness and increases social cohesion.

Second, it is terrifying that the United States now has its first post-rational president who denies science, proposes arithmetically unsound budgets and embraces alternative facts. I'd hope at such a time universities would be bulwarks for honest, open debate as a route toward greater truth. Too often, though, the objective of discussion at our elite schools is framed not as finding truth, or distinguishing better from worse ideas. Rather it is framed as achieving greater respect for other views or appreciation of the feelings of others.

All too often, as with the shameful treatment of Charles Murray at Middlebury, this means giving a heckler’s veto to those who want to carry the day with the strength of their feeling rather than the force of their argument. The consistent reluctance of university faculties and administrations to punish students who shut down debate and dialogue is deplorable.

Third, at a time when the United States faces momentous challenges, I am discouraged to see universities turn inward and embrace an Orwellian paternalism in an effort to reduce what is seen as victimization. Something has gone badly wrong when the chancellor of the largest state university system is pushing faculty attendance at seminars where faculty are trained that it is wrong and even racist to say that “America is a land of opportunity” or that “meritocracy is a good thing” or that “with hard work you can achieve your dreams.”

The only intellectually safe space for a college student should be in his or her parents’ home. A liberal education that does not cause moments of acute discomfort is a failure. I shudder to think of what kind of leadership will com from a generation that has been taught that it is acceptable to cut off having to listen to ideas because they are “triggering” or that it is essential to resist so-called microaggressions or that spaces that are safe not from violence but from speech that is unpleasant can reasonably demanded.

I wish I could say these trends were running their course. Historian Rick Perlstein demonstrates that railing against what was happening at Berkeley brought Ronald Reagan to power. I suspect college campuses are again radicalizing as they did in the 1960s and I suspect the political effects will be about the same now as they were then. That is not a happy prospect for universities, our country or the world.

Correction: Rick Perlstein is the historian who authored "The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan." A previous version contained incorrect information.