Posted: March 24, 2006
t is a debacle at Harvard: a great university getting rid of its most outstanding president since James B. Conant, the only outstanding president at a major university today, and doing this for no stated reason. His unofficial detractors brought up only his abrasive style. In no way could it be said either that he had completed his mission, and thus deserved retirement, or that he had failed in it, and so deserved to be booted. The event is demeaning to all involved, but especially to the three main parties—the Harvard Corporation, the faculty, and Mr. Summers.
These three share the blame in descending order, and speaking as an informed observer, not an insider, I will assess it as I see it now.
The greatest blame goes to the Harvard Corporation, which brought in Larry Summers and then abandoned him. They set him the task of shaking things up and then became queasy and turned him out when he did just that. For Summers did not truly resign; he was undermined and effectually pushed out. The loss of confidence in him by his superiors was obvious. In the first major public incident of Summers's presidency, his interview with Cornel West, the Corporation supported him publicly. In the second, the controversy over his remarks on the capacity of women for science, the Corporation remained silent. In the third, the reaction to the resignation of Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean William Kirby, the Corporation actively undermined the president by letting it be known that it was consulting with faculty opposed to him.
In all three incidents, Summers was in the right. Cornel West, for all his virtues, was no model scholar; it's true, apparently, that fewer women than men have capacity for science (or mathematics) at the highest level; the dean had produced very little from the curriculum review that was his main assignment. Summers was trying to hold Harvard to a higher standard of excellence than it was becoming used to—exemplary scholarship from all faculty, hiring only the best without the pressure to meet a quota based on sex, and a challenging curriculum that gets the best out of students as well as faculty.
Since first entering office Summers had many times set forth "greatness" as his goal. He was aware, and he wanted to make the rest of Harvard aware, that there is a difference between a wealthy, famous, and prestigious university and a great one. The prestigious university, complacent and self-satisfied, will in time lose its repute; the great one will keep its luster and gain more renown effortlessly, just by being itself and aiming high. To get Harvard back on the right track, however, takes the effort in which Summers was engaged.
Summers proposed a curriculum review that would result in solid courses aimed to answer students' needs, replacing stylish courses designed to appeal to their whims. Such courses would require professors to teach in their fields but out of their specialties; no longer would they assume that the specialized course they want to teach is just the course that students need. Summers also began a move to rein in grade inflation; he dispelled some of Harvard's political correctness by inviting conservative speakers and looking for conservative professors to hire; he transformed the policy of affirmative action by reducing the pressure to hire more blacks and women as such; he opposed Harvard's hostile attitude toward the U.S. military. Besides these measures, he sought to put or keep Harvard first in science, an intent made possible by a considerable expansion of the university across the Charles River to Allston. This is the substance of Summers's ambitious presidency.
Thanks to the Harvard Corporation, all this effort is suspended—who knows for how long. In forcing Summers out, the Corporation surrendered to the "diehard left" (Alan Dershowitz's expression) which had opposed him from the start and is now celebrating in triumph and glee. The Corporation gave a veto to Summers's sworn enemies, thus conferring a power that will be difficult to restrain, much less reclaim. I do not know, but I suppose this was done out of sympathy and fear combined, probably out of fear of not showing sympathy. The Corporation is composed of liberals and leftists, and was reportedly led in this action by the feminist Nannerl Keohane, former president of Duke University, and by liberal democrat Robert Reischauer, president of the Urban Institute.
But the Corporation was also afraid of showing too much sympathy with the Left. It could not summon the manly confidence to avow that Summers was being ousted because his agenda of renewal clashed with the diversity agenda of the feminist Left and its sympathizers. In its letter on Summers's resignation, the Corporation did not criticize him or his policies in any way, not even by hint or allusion. With this failure it let stand the pretensions of the diversity crowd and ducked responsibility for its own action, attempting to palliate imprudence with insincerity.
For this sorry misdeed done to Harvard and to other universities around the world that watch Harvard, the Corporation deserves first prize in responsibility for the debacle. But the Harvard faculty comes a close second.
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The faculty opposed to Summers were divided into enemies and critics. His enemies planned or intended his demise as soon as he began to show that he had doubts about the diversity agenda. They led the clamor against him in several faculty meetings in 2004. They were joined by critics, not necessarily of the Left, who had been wounded in encounters with Summers. To get more out of the faculty, he had to ask challenging questions, and those who could not make convincing replies sometimes felt they were being bullied, when in fact they had merely lost the argument. Mr. Summers did not pay attention to Machiavelli's advice that "men should either be caressed or eliminated." Yet in the confrontations in faculty meetings he himself was made to endure reproach and rancor beyond anything seen in the last 50 years at Harvard, including the troubles of the late 1960s.
It's no use trying to persuade the diversity Left; they cannot be moved. But something might have been done to conciliate Summers's critics. They did not mean to bring him down, even though they helped to do that. They were irresponsible in bringing small charges that, combined with the hostility of the Left, had a lethal effect. Unfortunately, Summers with various abject apologies and huge gifts—$50 million for the cause of bringing more diversity feminists to Harvard—tried to conciliate his enemies rather than his critics. He encouraged his enemies by showing how weak he was and failed to persuade those who might have been persuaded if he had defended himself and attacked his enemies.
This brings us to Mr. Summers, surely more sinned against than sinner. He gave a noble try to the reform of Harvard, and he failed. During his ordeal of relentless, humorless criticism and especially in his letter of resignation he was gracious to all who were doing him wrong. He was not a bully but his enemies were. They, not he, deserved to be humiliated. He overmatched them one-on-one, but together these ungenerous weaklings brought him down.
Summers did not defend himself but instead demoralized his defenders with his apologies, leaving them with nothing to defend. We do not know whether he was under constraint from the Corporation, but he did not organize his defenders. He believed it would be divisive to admit that there were "sides" in the dispute. He worried about returning to the partisanship within the faculty of the late 1960s. But of course the other side had organized early on in his administration. He and Dean Kirby allowed the election in 2004 of a Faculty Council (the faculty representative body) composed of his worst enemies, that plotted against him throughout. It would have been easy to expose them, for they tended to overreach. Instead, they succeeded in a goal they never thought they could attain.
Summers's administration was a one-man show. He did not build a group of supporters to carry out his plans. He relied on himself alone. It was as if his individual superiority would bring victory in a series of single combats without his having to build an army with soldiers, marshals, and a Garde Imperiale. His audience would applaud his victories and the common good would be served. Yet this picture is not quite right. Far from imitating Napoleon, Mr. Summers believed in reason and in self-interest as the object of reason. He thought he could prevail without winning and apologize without losing. Nor would he have to out-argue his intellectual inferiors. He would merely question their opinions and show them their indubitable self-interest. He was in a deep sense impolitic, an economic man who knows nothing of war and hence nothing of politics. He lost his own opportunity and in doing so may have spoiled it for others.