What colleges can learn from the brouhaha at Harvard
Hardball. The body that installed Summers and that will ultimately decide whether he'll continue as president--the seven-member Harvard Corporation--clearly wanted a vigorous figure to succeed his quietly self-effacing predecessor, Neil Rudenstine, a president who will most likely be remembered for fundraising prowess, a deft managerial hand, and an immobilizing bout with exhaustion that forced him to take an extended leave of absence.
In Summers, the Corporation certainly found a hard charger. Both at the World Bank, to which he moved fewer than 10 years after receiving tenure at Harvard at age 28, and at the Treasury Department, Summers learned to play hardball to get what he wanted, often displaying little diplomacy. Former treasury boss Robert Rubin, himself a Harvard Corporation fellow, said that the Washington experience had smoothed some of Summers's rough edges. But it certainly did nothing to dampen his competitive instinct or his appetite for quantifiable results.
And he would need both to accomplish the ambitious agenda that he brought back to Harvard. It included, among other things, greater internationalization of the university and its programs, expansion of financial aid, more emphasis on the sciences and biomedical research, plans for a new campus across the Charles River in Allston, and a renewed focus on the undergraduate experience, including curriculum reform.
Perhaps only the second item on that list was beyond controversy. And indeed Summers has been widely hailed, both within and beyond Harvard, for his effort to make tuition free for those students whose parents earn less than $40,000 a year. "He has been a forceful voice in higher education addressing the under representation of lower-income groups in the elite universities," says Amherst College President Anthony Marx.
There is a sense, too, that undergraduates generally like and respect a president who not only gets out and mingles with them but also, in teaching a popular freshman course, shows a real commitment to improving the quality of their education. The goodwill of those students was evident even in the recent controversy. While many denounced Summers's remarks and protested against the university's allegedly sexist policies, at least as many joined or supported an ad hoc group called Harvard Students for Larry. One of the latter, Liz Greene, described her feelings about the embattled president as she stood among the crowd outside Lowell Hall last week: "He has bad judgment, but ultimately he has vision and has encouraged engagement between faculty and students."
Technocracy. If the Harvard Corporation is less than pleased with the leader it selected, it is not saying so. Indeed, on the same day earlier this month that Summers belatedly released the full transcript of his controversial remarks, the Corporation published a letter to the Harvard community stating its full support of the president and his vision for the university. Still, such an endorsement is not likely to stanch criticism of that vision, even of those parts whose specifics remain murky. Some fear that greater internationalization means Harvard may lose its special American character. Others fret that moving some of the undergraduate houses to the Allston campus could endanger the already fragile college esprit.