What colleges can learn from the brouhaha at Harvard
For their part, Summers's less conflicted foes had hoped to see last week's meeting conclude with a no-confidence vote on the president--what would have been the first in Harvard's history. (According to a Harvard Crimson poll sent to 683 faculty members before the meeting, 38 percent of the 273 respondents said they would vote "no confidence," while 12 percent were undecided.) Partly for procedural reasons, that vote never came to pass, while the general tone of the meeting proved far more moderate than that of the previous week's gathering. "His critics toned down their rhetoric because they knew they had won," says Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, whose review of research on women in scientific fields was one source of Summers's provocative remarks. "He apologized for at least the sixth time. He had appointed two committees to look into women's issues. They got everything they wanted except his head."
Whether the president's most recent apology will finally bring to an end this latest chapter of Larry Summers's Amazing Harvard Adventure (the faculty will meet again in March) remains to be seen. But the questions raised by the controversy go beyond the recent storm to larger issues touching on the role of presidents in the governance of American universities. How aggressive and independent can college presidents be when they are trying to satisfy multiple constituencies--students, alumni, trustees, and faculty--while also meeting the increasingly consuming demands of chief fundraiser? How insistent an agent of change should the president himself be? Does he or she lead or simply manage the various parts of the institution? Can presidents still speak freely on the great issues of the day?
Some observers of American higher education say university presidents have become far too passive and quiet during the past three decades. They yearn for a return of transformative figures like James Conant, Harvard's president from 1933 to 1953, who was not reluctant to stir up his university or the larger society with his strong argument for making elite institutions open to all people of proven ability. Today's presidents, by contrast, are often "pretty incidental and don't show much interest in what's going on in their schools," says John Thelin, a professor of educational policy studies at the University of Kentucky and author of A History of American Higher Education. About Summers specifically, he adds, "It's good to see a shift away from what you might call 'absentee presidents.' " But S. Frederick Starr, a former president of Oberlin College, points out the obvious danger: "It may be that Larry Summers aspires to be a leader in a culture that wants a manager--and a rather paternal one at that."
Harvard, it is clear, has yet to render a unanimous verdict on what it wants. "Harvard's governance process is in need of revision," says Evelynn Hammonds, professor of the history of science and of African and African-American studies and the chair of the newly created task force on female faculty. And her own notion of presidential leadership, she says, "is about working with the faculty, being open to diverse opinions, respecting the diverse opinions." But supporters of Summers say that he has always been open to other opinions--and that he responds to them when they are compellingly presented. Part of his problem, they admit, may be his aggressive style. "An economist tends to engage in forceful back-and-forth," says David Ellwood, dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government. "If he goes after you, he is arguing. He is seeking a response." Beyond style, though, the real question is whether Harvard's disgruntled faculty members truly want to engage in a debate with someone who might beg to differ, however strongly or politely, or whether they want someone who goes along with their views and submits to their demands. Pinker, for one, fears that the recent controversy proved how intolerant of contrary views the faculty is. "It really does mean that there is a party line on certain issues, and a person can be taken down by contradicting it."