What colleges can learn from the brouhaha at Harvard
Addressing some 500 faculty members gathered in Harvard's Lowell Hall last week, Lawrence Summers, the university's outspoken 27th president, displayed uncharacteristic humility: "I am committed to opening a new chapter in my work with you," vowed the former treasury secretary and World Bank lead economist, looking more than a little chastened after five weeks of controversy brought on by comments he had made about the paucity of women at the highest levels of science and engineering.
Delivered at an economics conference in mid-January and eventually leaked to the press, those off-the-record remarks sparked what quickly grew into an international debate about the causes and consequences of gender differences--in no small part because Summers's stress on "intrinsic aptitude" seemed to put him on the politically explosive nature side of the nature-nurture debate. Closer to home, his comments--and perhaps his initial refusal to release a full transcript of them--brought to a head resentments that many in the Harvard arts and sciences faculty had come to feel toward their sharp-elbowed leader during his contentious 3 1(/2)-year reign. Nor were those faculty members willing to forgive quickly, even after Summers repeatedly apologized for having addressed potentially hurtful views in too careless a manner. After all, his determined critics were quick to point out, this was the man whose allegedly disrespectful remarks had driven away popular African-American studies Prof. Cornel West. His questioning of Harvard's anti-ROTC stance and forthright criticism of the divestment-from-Israel movement were further bones of contention. And wasn't it also the case that under his presidency the number of women receiving tenured positions had notably declined, down to only four out of 32 last year? To disgruntled faculty, the president's ill-considered remarks at the economics forum went hand in hand with policies, attitudes, and an overall leadership style--high-handed, abrasive, and authoritarian--that was ill-suited to the collegial life of an academic institution.
Not surprisingly, conservatives on the faculty and in the wider world--and a good number of liberal observers as well--saw things quite differently. In their view, the real cause of anger among the predominantly leftish professoriate was Summers's willingness to talk about ideas and research that challenged left-liberal shibboleths. Hadn't Summers's earlier effrontery in raising questions about affirmative action in a meeting with African-American scholars set off similar liberal alarums? And didn't he also raise the hackles of the tenured radicals by talking about grade inflation and an undergraduate curriculum filled with too many narrow-gauged courses reflecting the instructors' special interests rather than providing broader coverage of a field? "He is academically a conservative, though politically a liberal," says government Prof. Harvey Mansfield, who wears his own conservative convictions proudly. "The academic liberals here can't stand him. They have been looking for a way to get him. And now they have found one."
Beyond gender. Still others see something far more than mere ideology behind the tempest. "It is clear that something bigger than the gender question erupted," says psychology Prof. Mahzarin Banaji, who describes herself as "both critical of the content of what Larry said and supportive of him and his continuation."
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."
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.
For all their variety, there may be a common theme to these scattershot criticisms, one to which even a determined leader like Summers might profitably pay some heed. Summers's vision for Harvard only accentuates an old struggle between what might be called the soul of great universities--that is, their grounding in humanistic search and questioning--and the modern tendency to transform such institutions into centers of technique and applied learning, citadels of technocracy. That tension is described remarkably similarly in two otherwise quite different books about Harvard, one by liberal journalist Richard Bradley and the other by an atypically conservative recent grad named Ross Douthat.
Each author casts a skeptical eye on a report on curriculum reform instigated by Summers and released last year, finding its general suggestions a mixture of the vague, the trite, and the uninspiring. In Harvard Rules, Bradley writes disparagingly of the report's vague call for more "interdisciplinary" science courses and quotes with approval the words of a Crimson writer who suggested that the report was "largely driven by the narrow-minded agenda of a university president who . . . seems intent on turning Harvard into his alma mater, MIT."
Unfair? Possibly. But listen to Douthat in his book, Privilege. He refers to Summers's oft-repeated claim that most students need, above all, a more rigorous science and mathematics education so they will know the "difference between a gene and a chromosome." But that claim, says Douthat, ignores the fact that the "sciences, broadly defined, dominate today's Harvard, and it's the conquering, calculating spirit of science that has driven the humanities into the shadows of theory, of postmodernism, of irrelevance." Summers's misdiagnosis, Douthat argues, results from "the vision of an economist and a man of the technocratic '90s who shares the prejudices of that age: toward the rule of the market, the importance of the quantifiable and the profitable, the ascendancy of science and technology."
Larry Summers can hardly be blamed for the contemporary crisis in liberal arts education, particularly the disarray into which the humanities have largely fallen during the past 40 years. In fact, the fury that he provokes from many of his faculty whenever he even approaches the normative inquiries that lie at the heart of the humanities--those damnably difficult questions of should and ought --shows just how hard it would be to take on that disarray. But that is one of the greatest challenges facing university presidents today. And unless Summers is willing to engage in yet another controversial debate, slings and arrows notwithstanding, his critics might be proved right in saying that his bold agenda merely sidesteps one of the deeper problems facing any university that aspires to remain true to its founding mission.
With Vicky Hallett and Alex Kingsbury
This story appears in the March 7, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.