Mob rule at Harvard (National Post, March 02, 2005)

The Lawrence Summers affair just isn't going away, and its continuing presence in the news is a sad commentary on academic freedom in America.

As everyone by now knows, on Jan. 14 Harvard University president Summers opined that the low number of women at the pinnacle of math and science research might be due in part to innate differences between men's and women's cognitive abilities in those areas.

He didn't say that women are dumber, but that, on average, they are less likely to be either hypersmart or hyperdumb. What's more, the available data suggests Summers is entirely correct.

But the academy being what it is, a media circus erupted, with feminist academics claiming to have been psychically wounded by Summers' "sexist" theories. As noted by Steve Sailer and Robert Fulford on these pages, the Harvard president only compounded his problem by publicly apologizing over and over again for a crime he did not commit. There is now widespread speculation he may be forced to resign.

What is happening to Summers seems bizarre and irrational -- the modern day equivalent of a Soviet show trial. But it is actually part of a recognizable and oft-replicated phenomenon that's been dubbed "workplace mobbing." Mobbing can happen in any work environment, but strikes a more ominous chord when it occurs on campus, supposedly home to the disinterested search for truth.

University of Waterloo sociology professor Kenneth Westhues has written extensively on the subject, most recently in his 2004 book, Workplace Mobbing in Academe: Reports from Twenty Universities. It's a grim, depressing read, chronicling the sometimes permanent descent into hell of (almost invariably) male professors, who have been swarmed, humiliated and run out of their jobs for making innocent remarks.

Westhues knows whereof he speaks, having endured his own campaign of harassment, including a suspension, over a student's vague allegations that he'd made "racist statements." He was vindicated by an adjudicator two years later, but his collegial life has never been the same.

Probably the most famous case of Canadian mobbing involved the cruel treatment meted out to widely respected Toronto journalist and feminist June Callwood by Nellie's women's shelter. In 1991, Nellie's, which Callwood helped found, ousted her from its board amid other-worldly allegations of racist behaviour. It was an incredible charge given Callwood's impeccably liberal track record. As with Summers, the campaign was fuelled not by facts, but rather by the critics' own shrill, more-tolerant-than-thou self-righteousness.

In a classic mobbing episode, the underlying "crime" is typically either trifling or non-existent. The accused at first assumes his friends and colleagues will rush to defend him. But if the critics are able to cast their case in politically fashionable terms -- the fight against racism or sexism, most commonly -- then personal loyalties go out the window. People rush to join the torch-bearing crowd, lest the accused's crimes tarnish them as well.

Mobbing was first articulated as a syndrome by Swedish psychologist Heinz Leymann in the early '80s. He defines it as "an impassioned, collective campaign by co-workers to exclude, punish and humiliate a targeted worker." The urge "travels through the workplace like a virus." As the campaign proceeds, increasingly hostile ploys come to be seen as legitimate.

Summers' predicament fits neatly into Leymann's viewfinder. The circumstances surrounding his case accord in almost every respect with a 12-point profile Professor Westhues has developed to identify true mobbing. Amongst the criteria:

- The target is popular and high-achieving. Mediocre performers tend not to arouse the eliminative impulse in peers;

- Unanimity prevails: "The loss of diverse opinion is a compelling indication that eliminative fury has been unleashed";

- The charges are fuzzy;

- There is a lack of due process;

- The rhetoric is overblown. "The more fervent, excited and overwrought the language used against the target, the less likely is the basis for exclusion of anything but a collective will to destroy."

The unsavoury drama that has unfolded before our eyes on America's most prestigious campus reminds us that education and intellect don't protect against the perversity of the mobbing instinct. If anything, they seem to fuel it.

The only way to combat this pernicious virus is for theorists to shake off their fixation on gender and race equity, the ideological intoxicant that drives normally sober academics to punch-drunk witch hunts. Instead, universities should concentrate on serious efforts to make campuses open to a diversity of opinion.

Meanwhile, instead of undermining his own cause and that of academic freedom, it would help if Summers started acting like a free man, and not a Soviet-era thought criminal.

© National Post 2005