|Man Without Qualities|
Thursday, March 17, 2005
The right side of the blogosphere has convinced itself that the recent Harvard faculty vote of "no confidence" in Larry Summers is mostly a left-wing political temper tantrum. For example, what David Bernstein, a law professor at Virginia's George Mason University, argues is fairly representative:
Yes, that is pretty simple. For similar simple views, see also Stanley Kurtz and Richard Bennett and James Joyner and Power Line and Chris Bray, who claims that the vote was close - thereby ignoring the fact that about 2/3 of the members of the Arts and Sciences faculty voted for at least one rebuking resolution. Weirdly (in my view) the left side of the blogosphere seems to pretty much agree with the right hemisphere, with only the addition that Summers' deserves such political repudiation. The only problem with this analysis is that it appears to be almost completely wrong.
I have no sympathy with those at Harvard who are castigating Larry Summers for his women-in-science comments or the earlier Cornel West dust-up or any of his other "conservative" positions. But, to begin with, anyone who thinks 2/3 of the Harvard Arts and Sciences faculty are left wing kooks is choosing to be seriously foolish and has never spent any substantial time at Harvard - it should be obvious that something else is going on there in a very big way. My contacts at Harvard - which include senior members of the science faculty - are adamant in insisting that President Summers' problems are mostly the result of what is seen by the faculty as constant, unprecedented meddling in departmental affairs, abuse of traditions and faculty input, and other serious managerial deficiencies. The political issues are a flashy side-show.
A close friend who is senior Harvard faculty member voted at the meeting that passed the "no confidence" resolution against Mr. Summers and the second, milder, resolution. I asked that professor if my belief that the references to "certain aspects" of Summers' "management approach" in the second resolution is code for his meddling in departmental affairs even when the department is doing well was correct. The response was as follows:
Yes, and his willingness to overrule various faculty committees -- and to overturn decisions of his predecessor (which were made with faculty input) without consulting the faculty. .... By the way, some of us voted FOR the first motion but AGAINST the second. So the combined total of votes of rebuke must approach 2/3 of those present.(emphasis added)
Put another way: The sex-in-science issue (and other political issues) is for many - probably most - of the faculty not the dominant consideration - although, obviously, the mix of considerations differs from one faculty member to another. Bits of that mixed agenda can be seen in faculty comments about Summers' "dictatorial" management style and the like. One can, I think, construe that mixed agenda either for or against the faculty - but it seems to be a fact.
Further, the two distinct issues are seen by some to be 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. Just as he should have understood that his sex-in-science comments (and other politically-charged actions and statements) would likely set off a firestorm, he should also understand that no president can constantly and repeatedly exercise powers to over rule or ignore the faculty - a power his predecessors only exercised from time to time and with much more show of formal respect for the faculty. For example, here is a passage from an e-mail I received from the same senior Harvard faculty member in the sciences. I do not have permission to disclose the name, but I can tell you that the writer's opinions are definitely not at all "politically correct":
Concerning Summers ... here's a synopsis of my views:
As the above passages indicate, the writer is not irritated (still less "outraged") by the substance of President Summers' musings on gender and the sciences (many sensible people in the sciences say things like Summers did). In fact, my contact did vote for the "no confidence" resolution but voted against the second resolution because it explicitly combined references to the sex-in-science fracas with the question of university administration. The writer cares not a bit about Mr. Summers' criticism of the lack of Harvard support for members of the military, the writer agrees with President Summers regarding the overtones of anti-Semitism in much of the anti-Israel palaver on campus, and the writer does not think Cornel West was treated badly. Yet this senior professor still believes that irrespective of the recent controversy, he has been a bad president for Harvard.
My other Harvard contacts tell me essentially the same thing: Larry Summers is driving the faculty to distraction with what they view as his (1) indiscriminate meddling in the affairs of all academic departments irrespective of whether those departments are unquestionably performing well, (2) overruling various faculty committees without providing cogent and well explained reasons, and (3) overturning decisions of his predecessor which were made with faculty input without consulting the faculty. Indeed, one might argue that no university president in his right mind thinks doing these kinds of things is not going to result in a faculty revolt.
I personally neither agree or disagree with my sources on the question of Summers' supposed meddling and "abuse" of the faculty. The tendency of university presidents to surrender to faculties willing to create a row at the expense of their university's overall performance has, not surprisingly, impaired overall university performance across the country. I think Harvard may be reaping the fruits of having appointed as Mr. Summers' predecessor a man who did almost nothing but raise money - thereby allowing the faculty to get used to a much bigger role in running the university than it had in the past. Harvard's presidents before Rudenstine were always "dictators" in the eyes of many on the faculty even where they complied with more Harvard tradition than Mr. Summers has honored - and Harvard is almost certainly better today because of those strong presidents. But the Harvard faculty now sees things differently - and, apparently, there is a lot of evidence that they are right.
It is simply not as clear to me as it is to my faculty friends that Mr. Summers' "meddling" and "abuse" of the faculty has been bad for Harvard or even constitutes over reaching on his part. As for "meddling" in the affairs of successful departments, Harvard departments tend to have strong influences on outside evaluators from within their fields - which can make "successful" departments hard to identify. For example, before the huge "critical legal studies" mess at Harvard Law School some years back, most evaluations of that law school were positive. But after the row erupted many people were emboldened to come forward with the view that Harvard law school and its faculty had become rather second rate (on the other hand, the Law School had to degenerate into almost complete paralysis before the administration stepped in to over rule even that contentious bunch). Harvard Business School also fell from grace. But, in Summers' defense, surely the president of Harvard need not wait for a department to "blow up" to correct drift or sub-optimal performance! On the other hand, I don't pretend to know which Harvard departments are fully successful and which merely benefit from the academic hall of mirrors.
Of course, none of that addresses Larry Summers' apparent penchant for unilaterally over ruling decisions (especially by his predecessor) made with the consultation of the faculty. On that count, I can have no sympathy for such obvious administrative incompetence. A president has to know the sacred cows - even if only to pat them as he goes by!
Yesterday I sent a copy of the OpinionJournal post "The Dean Scream of Academe" to my friend the senior professor on the Harvard science faculty, who I mentioned above. As I noted previously, my Harvard contact is anything but "PC." In fact, this Harvard professor has had lots of high-profile fights with liberal education establishment representatives over the past several years. This was the response I received to the post:
To characterize the faculty vote as a left wing cabal or meaningless gesture is to misunderstand the situation completely. Harvard may have more than its fair share of left wing kooks, but you can't paint a large majority of the faculty into the left-wing corner. No, it's quite simple: Summers tried to radically alter the traditional balance of powers between the faculty and the administration. We were slow in catching on, but we did. The vote has already had an effect. The administration tried to push through a new version of "general education" at Harvard, in several details against the wishes of the relevant faculty committees. By university rules, the faculty as a whole must approve these plans. The administration has now backpedaled completely: all faculty objections will be taken into account. As one of the deans said to me, putting any proposal in front of the faculty now is like putting red meat in front of tigers, unless the faculty is clearly on board. The balance of power has shifted, from the president back to the FAS Dean and the faculty. The FAS Dean is also treading more carefully towards the faculty now.
It is fairly clear that Mr. Summers' difficulties at Harvard are mostly derived from his internal Harvard political maneuvers, with the national politics (that is, sex-in-science) being a side-show. In that sense there is both more and less to this kerfuffle than a national right-left proxy fight (others can decide how significant a fight over the internal faculty/administration Harvard balance of power really is). Specifically, the kind of views expressed by David Bernstein just don't capture what is going on. I, personally, don't know who is right and who is wrong in Cambridge in the internal balance of power fight and I don't care that much, but Larry Summers cannot be "saved" solely by arguments that ignore most of the basic irritants he has produced that have his university in an uproar - and the right side of the blogosphere is not doing the conservative movement any good by misrepresenting the nature and balance of this dispute. It is important for anyone trying to make sense of the current flap to recognize the cross-currents and how they can change the analysis. If Mr. Summers' "meddling" and other management issues are destructive and alone make him a bad president (as my faculty friends there insist) then for outside conservatives to back him largely on political grounds will likely backfire.
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