Man Without Qualities

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

A Bit More On Summers

The Harvard/Summers flap seems to have become an event that the big outside actors - like the New York Times (in the form of the Boston Globe, the Times' pointless northern catspaw) and the Wall Street Journal - find to be too important for them to be overly concerned with either Harvard or Summers! The American Spectator also sees the matter as fallout from right-left politics - especially the prior Cornel West dust-up. And the Economist has published a defense of Larry Summers (Summerstime, and the living ain't easy), omitting all reference to any Harvard protocols or faculty/administration balance of power and focusing instead on Mr. Summers' public, politically (in)sensitive actions, a defense that concluded:

In the end, the debate about Mr Summers comes down to a simple choice. On one side sit short-term expediency and censorship; on the other, freedom of speech and long-term effectiveness. If Mr Summers's foes manage to sack or gag him, they may have a happier university in the short term. But they will have snuffed out an invigorating source of criticism in a cosy world. And they will also have endangered the fundamental right of an academic to ask questions.

A Harvard professor not referenced in my post below responded to the Economist defense with this curious letter:

SIR - Your sweeping defence of Mr Summers misses the point. His ill-formulated remarks (about the possible causes of gender inequities among leading scientists) triggered long-simmering resentments about his impulsive and often hurtful conduct as the leader of an institution that, while scarcely flawless, has embodied high standards and worked harmoniously over the years. Unless one has dictatorial powers, one cannot change an institution by fiat, sheer will, or intimidation. And unless Mr Summers can somehow reinstate collegiality, trust and a civil tone on campus he will not achieve his goals, many of which have considerable support within the community

Howard Gardner

Harvard Graduate School of Education
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Professor Gardner's observations are oddly, and apparently deliberately, opaque and too diffident. He is clear in his insistence that Larry Summers has an obligation to make Harvard settle down and get along or face paralysis - a point rather overlooked by most mainstream and blogosphere coverage. "Long-simmering resentments" could refer in large part to by now long-simmering resentments among the Harvard faculty to Larry Summers' alleged attempt to shift the traditional balance of power within Harvard. But I'm not sure what to make of the writer's emphasis on "impulsive and often hurtful conduct." It is unlikely (to say the least) that Mr. Summers is often "impulsive" in the way ordinary people use that term. One does not become a Harvard professor at age 29, World Bank chief economist, Undersecretary and then Secretary of the Treasury and then president of Harvard by being "impulsive." My Harvard contacts seem to believe that Summers was calculated and furtive in his attempts to shift power to himself - anything but "impulsive."

And what could the writer mean by "often hurtful conduct?" Obviously this reference goes way beyond any allusion to known clashes - such as Mr. Summers' famous confrontation with Cornell West (which was arguably "hurtful" even if Professor West was not treated unfairly). Is it "hurtful" for a university president to ignore a faculty committee recommendation or unilaterally to reverse his predecessor's decision that was reached with prior faculty consultation? Is it "hurtful" for a university president to assert that the undergraduate faculty gives out too many "A's"? Perhaps - but such a use of language suggests a rather emotional Harvard faculty.

Strange it all was. Passing strange.

One additional observation: Much pro-Summers coverage seems rather orchestrated, and may reflect his skill as a self-promoter generally - and, in particular, his ability to establish personal relationships with individuals within the media who will come forward with well-timed articles in his defense when he needs them. That doesn't make him a bad person. He used this skill and his network of media connections against Cornell West to devestating effect. Ah! - an anti-West diatribe in the Village Voice!? Bravo, Larry! Bis!

But at the moment Mr. Summers has a small ultimate audience: The Harvard Corporation - which uniquely has the right to fire him. The very few people who make up that body are not easily dazzled by self promoters or orchestrated media coverage. They know how the game is played - they play it themselves when they need to. (As its interim president, Hanna Gray ably steered Yale through an unspeakably nasty strike by that University's workers way back in the mid-1970's.) They have media connections. They know grass roots from astroturf. And - most importantly - they talk to the Harvard faculty all the time. So the corporation knows the real, dominant reasons why the faculty is ticked off. It is not at all clear to me how a pro-Summers media band playing loudly but without reference to the faculty's power grab concerns sounds in the ears of those corporation members.

Postscript: I just heard from Harvard faculty contacts that Summers, in the past, gave public dressings-down to various Deans. These Deans in the past ran their schools (FAS, Law, Medicine, Kennedy, etc.) with minimal oversight from the Harvard President. Now they see themselves downgraded to being mere lieutenants. The Dean of the Graduate School of Education just resigned after only three years on the job, apparently over disagreements with Summers. This may be part of the "hurtful conduct" Gardener refers to. The overarching principle is said to be Summers' idea that he should be "in charge" of Harvard, the way a good CEO is in charge of his company. Since he once was a Harvard professor, if this is really his belief, it is bizarre for him to think this would work.

It has also been pointed out to me by my source that Summers' "sex-and-science" talk at NBER surely had an "impulsive" component in the sense that he should have known what the response would be. Professor Gardner's description of Summers' actions as "impulsive" may therefore be intended to express something close to what I noted in my prior post, that some people on the faculty believe that his apparently diverse problems are at least in part manifestations of the same (non-political!) deficiency in President Summers: Inability to understand the likely reactions to his acts from informal but powerful sources.

End Note: My above comment regarding the Wall Street Journal does not reflect any abating of my respect for the people there (including James Taranto and Dorothy Rabinowitz) and for their enormous well of talents.

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