Scholars with tenure at top-notch universities generally have the the luxury of reflection, which is why audiences might look to an economic historian at Harvard for insights about the world. Yet even among big-name academics, it can be easier to build a global reputation — and the speaking fees that go along with it — by sounding quotable and stirring up controversy.
Niall Ferguson, the Harvard history professor and frequent provocateur, seemed to suggest as much with his recent comments at a conference of investment advisers. His analysis of John Maynard Keynes, a giant figure in 20th-century economic thought, referenced the man’s homosexuality, arguing that Keynes’s policies lacked foresight because he did not have children. Those policies are very much in play, and Ferguson might have provided some scholarly context for them. But his riff on Keynes’s sexuality seemed to be provocative for the sake of provocation alone. (He was also somewhat off base; Keynes would have had a child were it not for his wife’s miscarriage.)
When the inevitable uproar came, Ferguson offered an “unqualified apology” for his “off the cuff” remarks. Yet this characterization was hard to square with his 1999 book “The Pity of War,” in which Ferguson suggests that Keynes’s policy positions — in that case on World War I — were affected by his sex life. Investment groups beware: The professor you’re hiring may be more interested in grabbing your attention than building your store of knowledge.