|Man Without Qualities|
Friday, April 15, 2005
From the perspective of my faculty contacts at Harvard, the overall approach of this Washington Post survey of Harvard President Larry Summers' troubles is utterly out of focus. The Post article gives far too much emphasis to the various public Summers/Harvard crises (sex-in-science, Cornell West, gays in the military and military on campus, etc), and pays far to little attention to the particulars of Mr. Summers' management style, preferring to stick to almost contentless generalities. Is he a "strong leader" or is he a "unilateralist?" Who cares! The real question is: has he been trying to shift the basic faculty/administration power structure at Harvard and, if so, is that a good or a bad thing? This is not something that can be decided without looking at actual incidents - and the Post provides none at all.
But the Post article does, apparently almost unwittingly, provide some glimpses of the Harvard/Summers show - glimpses that may have a significance quite other than the significance assigned to them by the Post. Consider these passages:
Last week, Summers (who is addressing the Harvard Club in Washington this evening) struck a very different tone.
Perhaps the most striking disclosure in this article is the comment of Judith Hope, a former member of the Harvard Corporation -- a seven-member group that includes the president and is the ultimate authority at the University: Summers was chosen to facilitate the creation of a more centralized university. In other words: Mr. Summers was hired to reduce faculty authority - which is exactly what my Harvard contacts have been telling me he has been doing, and exactly what the faculty is up in arms over. Whether Harvard should or should not be more "centralized" and have less faculty input is a separate question. But Ms. Hope's admission strongly suggests that the ongoing brouhaha on the Charles is not just between Harvard's President and its faculty - the real fight is between the faculty and the Harvard corporation.
The Post article also suggests that Mr. Summers may have hit upon the beginnings of a nice counter strategy to the faculty's actions: turning against the faculty the very same public disputes that the faculty have to some extent been using as a flashy pretext for their actions - especially the sex-in-science imbroglio that the media finds so riveting. Mr. Summers (and the Harvard corporation) wish to restructure the University, and what better reason to restructure a university than to "admit" that universities like ours were structured in their basic structure many years ago, and it's probably an exaggeration but not too much of one to say that they were designed by men for men? Starting from that premise, Harvard has a positive obligation - especially to women - to junk its existing structure and meet the needs of the 21st Century! (Which just happens to be what Mr. Summers and the Harvard corporation want to do.)
Academic Ju Jitsu. Will it work? Mr. Summers and the Harvard corporation are very clever people. But so is the Harvard faculty - and just about any one of them can leave Harvard for just about any other academic institution in the world.
In the mean time, everybody involved may want to pay especial attention to what is happening to Morgan Stanley right now. It might help to concentrate the minds in Cambridge to see what it looks like for an apparently dominant and unassailable institution to blow itself up from within.
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