Globe Manufactures New Summers ‘Controversy’

Is a public figure with a lot of baggage in his past doomed to be haunted by "controversy" wherever he goes?

Is a public figure with a lot of baggage in his past doomed to be haunted by “controversy” wherever he goes? That was certainly the case with the Boston Globe’s coverage of a warmly received talk former Harvard president Larry Summers gave at nearby Tufts University this week, as the paper tried its darnedest to imbue Summers’ appearance with as much controversy as possible.

While an early Web headline proclaimed “Former Harvard president still dogged by controversy — even at Tufts,” the Globe toned that down for its Thursday print edition — “Despite controversy, Summers welcomed at Tufts” — but even that went too far.

While the Tufts Daily carried the placid headline “Summers speaks on higher ed to positive student response,” and the Harvard Crimson highlighted the Tufts president’s comment that boycotts by some of his professors were “much ado about nothing,” the Globe took another tack. Remember that Summers — while a brilliant economist and well-liked by students — did flame out as Harvard’s president after just five years, after he stepped on too many toes, a few stars of the Af-Am “Dream Team” fled to Princeton, and he lost the confidence of the faculty. In addition, some Tufts professors denounced Summers’ speech before he gave it.

Hence, the Globe emphasized up top that Summers’ “very name is enough to stir controversy” at Tufts and that some faculty boycotted his appearance, saying that Summers — widely scorned for his 2005 comments on women in science — does not represent the university’s values. But the hoped-for conflict did not pan out, as the Globe’s story itself indicates.

The paper reported that “a polite audience of mostly students gave Summers a friendly reception” and only asked him about his chosen topic, reforming undergraduate education, “instead of past controversies.” Tufts’ president said he had received complaints about Summers’ appearance from a grand total of three professors and zero students, while the one student the Globe quoted posed “a critical question” to Summers but actually grew to like him more by the end of the talk. And it referred to an unscientific poll from the Tufts Daily in which 62 percent of readers said they supported Summers’ talk compared to 24 percent against it — although half of them said they still wanted to attend.

But the Globe wouldn’t let Summers escape those “past controversies,” so the paper turned to a lone negative voice, that of boycotting professor Gary R. Goldstein, who considered Summers’ appearance “particularly damaging” because it followed two other divisive Tufts events involving attacks on affirmative action. According to Goldstein, the university’s invite sends the message “that it’s alright to make statements that are offensive to half the student body,” yet confoundingly he also wished Summers would address women in science or African-American studies so (as the Globe said) “the audience could hash out those topics instead of politely ignoring them” — did that mean he wanted more offensive statements, too? In any case, Goldstein said, pre-lecture, that “he expected dozens of faculty and students to boycott,” but the Globe did not spell out the difference between boycotting an academic lecture and simply not showing up for one. If faculty or students have other commitments, like midterms or dinner, is that a boycott?

This “controversy,” then, was largely invisible, at least on Wednesday night. But without it, the Globe wouldn’t have had much of a story.

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Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.