Already in the first sentence, the author describes our president with the adjective "tactless" in order to simplify the life of his readers: they don't need to think for themselves (many of them are not doing it anyway).
In 2001, Prof. Summers has pointed out that several anti-Israeli movements attempting to gain influence at that time were anti-Semitic in effect if not their intent; Noam Chomsky was one of the figures that supported these anti-Semitic movements. Although I would say that Summers was obviously right, Traub disagrees. It's not a disaster if he disagrees; what's worrisome is the way how he disagrees. Traub writes that Summers had "grossly offended one of his institution's core constituencies, and the academic world generally."
Is this formulation serious? By his statement, Summers may have offended the far & anti-Semitic corner of the political left wing - not the whole left wing: Summers himself is a liberal - but he certainly did not offend "academic world generally". The attitude towards Israel is a completely political question and the scholars in academia have different political opinions. The movement was also political, despite the contributions of well-known scholars. The people are offended or not-offended depending on their political orientation, not according to their membership in the academic world!
Three years ago, Summers certainly did not offend me. He certainly did not offend hundreds of others. Is Traub's description some new kind of "academic consensus" that all of us should sabotage Israel, an island of democracy in the Middle East? I hope that we're not back in the "consensus" of Germany in the 1930s.
Traub then emphasizes that Nancy Hopkins was offended by Summers' remarks about the biological differences between the thinking of both genders. I think that Nancy Hopkins should, first of all, be ashamed for her un-scientific reaction. It does not seem as a professional approach to escape from the room where a speaker proposes hypotheses about an issue that this whole conference was supposed to discuss in the first place - only because the hypotheses are inconvenient for Hopkins' political beliefs. Moreover, I believe that as a biologist she should know much more about the brains, for example. If she knew these things, she would definitely know what insights of other scientists Summers was referring to.
Traub then outlines his idea that the university leaders should be the "most timorous and emollient of public speakers". Traub believes that it's just fine if their behavior is hypocritical, but it's important that in the public they behave as puppets who only present meaningless babble that does not offend anyone (and who collect high salary for this vacuous theater). This is how Traub imagines the ideal university boss. Well, I certainly don't share Traub's visions.
He enumerates a couple of previous Harvard's presidents. Traub's following paragraph is full of statements that are not true. He states that "Summers has not achieved, and perhaps has not sought, this leadership role." I am sure that Traub must know that this is a lie. He must know that Summers will be written in the history of Harvard as one of the most important presidents - even in the unlikely hypothetical case that the feminists (both female as well as male ones) would try to make a big 1917-like coup next week. More likely, Summers will be leading Harvard for many years to come. Traub has no problems to humiliate the conservatives at our university by describing them as "a very poor source of street cred, by the way, in the Ivy League."
Imagine how it would sound if someone wrote the same sentence about the African Americans, for example. But it's fine to attack the conservative scholars, is not it? They're the minority that does not deserve any protection.
Traub then says that he believes it is wrong to challenge orthodoxies. In this final part, which shows that he has really no idea what academia and science means, he criticizes not only Prof. Lawrence Summers, but also Prof. Steven Pinker, a world's leading psychologist and one of the 100 most influential people in 2004 according to the Time magazine. Their scientific approach is described as "anatomizing the pieties of academic culture" which Traub finds unacceptable.
I wonder whether he has heard of the Catholic Church that had the very same approach to science when the modern scientific age was getting started and science's first task was to "anatomize the pieties of people's religious beliefs about astronomy."
Let's get it straight. Academic culture has nothing to do with some fashionable beliefs about the role of races and genders. Academia and science have existed a long time before the slavery was abolished. They were here long before the women were admitted to the universities as men's peers. They were here long before the Nazis coined their theories about the "superior race". And science kind of worked. And they're still here long after the beliefs about creationism, Nazism, and so on were mostly abandoned. The word "university" is related to the Latin word "universum" which means the "whole" - a university includes all teachers and scholars. The main goal of the scholars is to search for the truth, not to protect the fashionable dogmas or fulfil the popular political quotas.
Science was here long before Christian geocentrism, communism, modern creationism, Nazism, feminism, and other -isms, and it will be here long after these -isms are gone. Let me now emphasize that I am not comparing these ideologies in detail - so please calm down and don't speculate which ideology should be offended more by this non-existing comparison. The only sense in which they're analogous is that they are political movements that try to influence academia.
The core of academic culture has nothing to do with either of these political and religious fads - and it is vitally important for science and the academia that they're not controlled by these temporary political influences - or, to say the least, that this control never becomes absolute. All of these fads always try to prevent the scientists from finding (or even looking for) some insights that may be inconvenient for someone's beliefs; all of these fads have tried to "absorb" academia under its political or religious umbrella. But it is an important task for the scientists and for science to resist the pressure.
Science has an eternal value. Imagine the important achievements of science in the last 200 years: the theory of evolution, relativity, quantum mechanics, genetics, and so forth. Compare this idealized world of ideas and the search for the truth with the world of politics.
In the early 20th century, the communist workers (and other communists) claimed that they were oppressed by the "capitalists" and they established one of two major totalitarian systems of that century. Some Germans then claimed that they were oppressed by the "global Jewish conspiracy" and they founded the second major totalitarian system. The pattern is quite general: a group that claims to be oppressed - although these claims are not really justified - becomes radical and eventually creates a system in which the natural equilibrium in the society is damaged and the freedom of thinking is suppressed - which is necessary to protect some dogmas that are not really true. Do we really need to repeat the same errors in the 21st century?
This difference between the clean world of science and the messy world of politics is a reason why the former must be protected against the influence of the latter.
Traub's punch line is that "it may be better for Harvard if [Prof. Summers] doesn't spend too much time in his padded woodshed." This turned out to be a tremendously ambiguous sentence. A reader of mine thinks that Traub means that Harvard will be better off if Traub will be speaking in public and provoking more often - the woodshed is where Summers hides when he does not provoke. My feeling was that Traub was trying to suggest resignation. In the latter case, I hope that the situation is not that bad that a leading university could be influenced by this kind of journalistic trash.
Two more NYT articles about the topic
The New York Times have fortunately published a complementary op-ed by Charles Murray that analyzes the gap between hard sciences and humanities. He mentions hundreds or thousands of scientific articles about the biological aspects of social differences between men and women that have been published since David Geary's book about the topic from 1998 - that itself contains 52 pages of references. This whole vibrant field of science is something whose existence our friends in humanities would like to deny. Murray's recent recommended literature is by Simon Baron-Cohen written in 2003 - a book explaining that female brains are predominantly optimized for empathy, male brains are primarily hard-wired for building systems, and autism is the case of an "extremely male brain". Of course, Murray also explains that detailed knowledge about the differences is exciting, not threatening, and it won't have adverse effects as long as people are careful and rational enough and the individuals are judged as individuals who enjoy the same rights.
Olivia Judson has another op-ed in which she tries to be mild - by talking about "someone else" - and she explains that the basic dogmas of feminism are not true for the elephants and other species. Her description is pretty offending against the male elephants, but I guess no one will bother to criticize her. ;-)
I think it's not right if The New York Times, a leading U.S. newspapers, includes Traub's political rant as a main article while the informative articles by David Geary and Olivia Judson are just op-eds - but thanks God at least for these op-eds. James Traub does not have sufficient credentials to question the research by Prof. Summers and Prof. Pinker.