Lack of Confidence in Larry? The Grad Students Vote

Harvard’s Graduate Student Council (an organization I usually consider to be about as effective as a human-sized tranquilizer dart used on an elephant on steroids) is sponsoring an online vote on “lack of confidence” in Larry Summers. The GSC is billing it as a chance to vote on the same measure as the faculty did last week–although that’s not strictly true: the faculty voted on two measures, lack of confidence and on condemnation of Larry’s management style. From the emails I have received, it looks like the grad students only get to vote on the lack of confidence measure.

I’ve said pretty much all I have to say on Larry (see below, The Last on Larry). I thought his remarks were silly and irresponsible, and that his response to criticism (a month of silence and refusal to release a transcript of his remarks) made the problem worse. I didn’t think, in the end, having read his comments, that his was a resigning offense.

I’m still thinking about that. It is clear to me that the gender incident at MIT has brought a number of issues to the fore, which is why the faculty also voted to show their lack of enthusiasm for Summers’ confrontational and dictatorial management style. Summers is a bull in the china shop, there’s no doubt about it. Being opinionated and strong-willed is good–but one has to temper those qualities to work effectively in a decentralized environment like Harvard’s. A little diplomacy could have gone a long way in Summers’ case. He didn’t choose that route, and now is paying the price.

There are plenty of reasons, separate from the overarching managerial issues, for a grad student to vote lack of confidence in Larry. I’ll start with the appalling small amount we are paid. I entered with a five-year funding package. The first two years of that package were for studying for the general exams and required coursework. The second two years were tied to full time teaching. The fifth year, which I am now in, funds you only for tuition and fees and is supposed to be a writing year (how one is supposed to write with no money is beyond me). Since no one finishes in five years, this is a paltry package for an institution with a 22 billion dollar endowment. The money we do receive in those first four years is inadequate, especially when one considers that Boston’s housing market is the third most expensive in the country. Summers’ response to this has been minimal. Our health insurance is pitiful. (I have spent quite a bit of my own money treating a rare eye condition over the past year and a half. Harvard’s BCBS supplimental covered almost none of my treatment.) Our dental insurance was canceled. Beyond quality of life issues, Summers’ focus on Allston has led to budget cuts in areas where grad students need resources the most: the libraries have suffered and research librarians have been let go. The numbers of students applying for research fellowships and finishing fellowships has increased, but the funding for those key elements in our finishing seems to have remained steady. Even little things like the history department’s annual smoker at the AHA have been cancelled due to lack of funds (and that gathering is always a good place for grad students either on the market or shortly to be on the market to network). In other words, the Summers tenure has not been good for grad students. Not all of these problems are his fault–but as the head of the university he must be held accountable.

I haven’t decided if I’ll vote “lack of confidence” in Larry. I can’t see what difference it will make either way–but I am thinking about it. I think my very ambivalence towards him is representative of part of his problem. Some people hate him and want him gone–but most people just don’t care enough about him, his style, or his agenda to fight for him.

(a)mused in the archives: of slander and vomit

In 1668, Mr John Prosser, minister, was accused of having made a scandalous and scurrilous accusation himself. One deposition: Robert Penrice aged 23 yrs or thereabouts saith that your depont being at the house of Capt Wilkin Hay heard Mr John Prosser the minister say that Anis Mackentash kept a Bawdy house for Nicholas Tailer and his maid Susanna Bewford & said he would prove it & further saith not. Translation: the deponent overheard the good Reverend Prosser say that Mr Mackentash (a Scot, from the sounds of it) essentially allowed his servants Nicholas Taylor and Susanna Bewford to fornicate under his roof. A bawdy house is a phrase describing a brothel. Mr Mackentash brought suit for slander, although an outcome isn’t listed. Maybe the minister was too powerful and too well-respected to be fined for such an accusation, or perhaps the justices actually believed the slander to be true. Who knows? The records, unfortunately, don’t say.

Mr Mackentash wasn’t the only one offended. I gather Nicholas Taylor wasn’t too amused by the accusation that he was fornicating with Susannah Bewford. That same court session, Nicholas Tailor was presented by the vestry of New Poquoson for coming into Church drunk & in full view of the congregation in time of divine service there spewing Ordered for his offence to be put in stockes & there remain until released by Court.

Now, the only good reason I can think of for going to church drunk and vomiting all over the building is if one had a serious grievance against the minister. Perhaps if that minister had accused you of fornication and defamed your master, while in drink you might think of a few things to say to him. You might even turn up at the church to say them. But, being drunk, when you opened your mouth to say them, vomit came out and your carefully thought out come backs stayed in.

Whatever happened here, I think this is a good illustration of how precarious the Church of England’s hold was in Virginia. While most settlers accepted the Church of England as the established church, I think most of them thought of it as something to be put up with. Virginians had to tolerate Rev Prosser’s accusations against planters, for example. Or they had to put up with Prosser’s predecessor Charles Grimes’ anti-Puritan tirades (which were much complained of in the records). The historical fashion lately has been to praise Anglican ministers and to assume that Virginians were by and large happy with the established church. Ministers were, according to James Walsh, largely respected and very rarely in the courts.

The York County Order Book tells a different story though. Virginians were resigned to the Church of England and largely conformed with theological dictates from England, but they weren’t above frustration with it. The truly frustrated surely didn’t respect ministers–they vomited on them.

Servant Ayres, with a lathing hamer, in the bedroom

I am comfortably esconsed these days as a research fellow at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. In 1997 the Foundation opened its brand-new John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library which boasts a fine collection of Virginiana. The working conditions are great, and I have more material to go through than I know what to do with. The fine folks at the York County Records Project are allowing me to use their transcriptions and indices of the York County Records, which begin in 1633. Reading court records case by case from 1633 to about 1720 on microfilm would have taken me an age; the wonderful resources these people have spent decades working on are helping me immensely. At any rate, I often find cases that are useless for my dissertation, but deeply interesting from a human perspective. This one is a case in point, which caused me to have a CLUE moment:

Wee the subscribers being this day Impannelled upon a Jury of Inquest by Jerom Ham High Sherr for this County of Yorke concerning the manner & cause of the death of Francis Hall and Elizabeth his wife doe give our Report as followeth That they were both knocked on the head lying in their Bedd in the dead of the night wth a lathing hamer by their servant Huntington Ayers as by the Confession of the said Ayers before us did appeare shewing us the manner In witness hereof wee have sett our hands this 21 Jan 1658/59 Richard Burnett RB Adam Straughan X Tho Bromfeild Samuel Fenne John Moor Humphrey Street Jno Margretts I Willm Newman X John Gun I Josuof Frandy John Woode John Dickeson P

Huntingdon Ayres was an indentured servant. He killed his master and mistress with a lathing hammer, a tool (as I learned in the OED 3rd Edition online) that carpenters used to fashion small strips of flexible wood to make into chair seats and the bases of beds, among other things. He knocked them on the head while their were sleeping late one night, and showed the jury how he did it. This is the only notation about the murder of the Halls until the County paid the General Court at James City for Ayres’ incarceration and execution by hanging in April 1659.

Ayres confessed, and demonstrated how he killed his masteer and mistress, but nowhere did the jury record a motive, a reason for killing two unarmed people. Like other servants, Ayres could have been the victim of a “lost” indenture: without written verification of the expiration of his term of service, the Halls could have kept him in servitude for years, drawing out the legal process of freedom. Or, like other masters, Francis Hall might have beat his servant mercilessly. I have read more than one account of the abuse of servants. Servants also seem to have been disproportionately more likely to commit suicide: of the seven cases of suicide I’ve encountered between 1633 and 1670, six of them were by servants. One servant hanged himself in his master’s tobacco shed “with one bridle Reyne of the value of 10 pence.”

I tend to read this murder case as the result of an exploitative system of indentured labor and budding slavery that flew in the face of English traditions of labor. Trapped in a system that made long service and physcial violence not only possible but acceptable, Ayres struck back and in the process lost his own life. But on the other hand, how can I really know? Seventeenth-century juries of inquest didn’t care about motives, apparently, Otherwise, they might have recorded them.

The Last on Larry?

Well, I’ve read through the transcript fairly carefully now. My one overwhelming impression is that Summers isn’t an expert on brain chemistry or learning styles, nor is he an expert on gender differences, real or perceived. In other words, he chose to speak at a conference on a topic about which he knows little and about which he has read little. He did so in simplistic terms calculated to “provoke” (read: offend). It was irresponsible. I guess the only good that can come of it is that people are talking about why fewer women are successful in academic careers in the maths and sciences. I think anyone who suggests that the main reason (or even a secondary reason) for this can be traced to innate differences is a moron. While psychologists have long known that differences in brain chemistry mean that girls and boys learn differently, there is absolutely nothing to suggest that these differences denote inferiority on the parts of girls or boys. When one speaks of innate differences, one is harkening back to the age of scientific racism, in which “innate differences” between blacks and whites connoted the superior intelligence of whites. No one believes that kind of racist analysis anymore; there’s absolutely no reason why anyone should entertain the sexist version of that postulate either. I don’t think Larry Summers actually believes that girls are inferior to boys–but in his ignorance his language suggested it. That is what made people so angry.

I also think that a lot of the rage directed at Larry was for other reasons–being angry about his thoughtless comments masked anger about his management style. One wonders why, when the endowment has reached record highs, research librarians are being laid off, the library budgets are falling, and the graduate students’ dental insurance is being cancelled. The reason, as I see it (and as many others see it) is that Summers is so focused on the expansion of the university into Allston that university resources that would otherwise be spent on, say, libraries and grad students, is being poured into that effort. There’s a lot of subsurface anger at budget cuts that hurt the university’s mission–teaching and research–and that came to the surface when Summers made a fool out of himself.