The New York Times notes that Summers knew he had to go when colleagues from the Clinton administration told him so.
The Times adds that Summers is thinking of advising a Democratic presidential campaign. There you have the explanation for Summers’ appeasement. Summers is from the sane side of the Democratic Party (yes, there is one). These moderate Democrats want to bring the academy closer to the center of the country. But when push came to shove, the leftist faculty wouldn’t play along.
That left Summers and his moderate Democrat backers on the board to choose between appeasement and a serious public battle. Ultimately, Summers and his allies backed down because they are part of the same national political coalition as the leftist faculty (which contributes heavily to the Democratic Party). Moderate Dems would be happy to reform the academy, but they don’t have the stomach to treat leftist professors as open opponents. Only Republicans can do that. So in a way, we are seeing another iteration of the paralyzing split between DLC types and the fire-breathing base. The Democratic left is just too big, too powerful, and too essential to victory to be purged, as Peter Beinart wanted to do.
That brings us to all those surveys of party registration in the academy. Party registration is a rough proxy for point of view in those surveys. But the Summers case suggests that it might be something more as well. The minuscule number of Republicans professors on campus shows that even moderate Democrats are unable to put the academy’s house in order without Republican help. So long as actual conservatives are effectively banned from the faculty (and make no mistake, they are now effectively banned), nothing will change. Not only will an entire set of ideas be missed, but even moderate Democrats will be cowed into submission. They can’t make war on the folks they work with in their larger political battles. And right now the academy needs war, not love.
Alan Dershowitz, in “Coup against Summers a dubious victory for the politically correct” describes the center-left split at the heart of this conflict. And here is Amity Shlaes on how the moderate mind-set of Clinton’s economic team tried but failed to reign in the radical 1970’s era sensibility still dominant on Harvard’s faculty.