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Harvard: The End of the Beginning

Larry Summers's conflict with the Harvard faculty has reached a crisis point. So what happens next?

10:00 AM, Mar 18, 2005 • By DEAN BARNETT
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IN MANY WAYS a university president is often like an extraordinarily well-credentialed trophy wife. The ideal university president should possess a glittering résumé of accomplishments, be a socially gifted goodwill ambassador for the school, and most importantly should have a deft hand at fundraising. As far as actually running the university of which he is president, that is usually left to the numerous deans and their faculty. A university president's job description might well read as follows: Raise money and look pretty.

Unfortunately for Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers, looking pretty--or at least acting pretty--has never been one of his specialties. While he has proven adept at fundraising during his stormy three and a half year tenure, he has also managed to offend Harvard's professoriate in a bewildering variety of ways. As a result, he Faculty of Arts and Sciences gave Summers an unprecedented vote of "no confidence" earlier this week.

OF COURSE SUMMERS is hardly the first prominent university president to fail to win his faculty's adulation. In 1948, then retired General Dwight D. Eisenhower became the president of Columbia University. In many ways, he found the Columbia faculty to be a more wily and intractable foe than Rommel. By all accounts, the Columbia faculty reciprocated their president's dislike. According to legend, the professors used to ridicule Ike by admonishing one another to not give their president memos longer than one page. Anything longer, they joked, would cause Eisenhower's lips to tire.

While the Columbia faculty blithely dismissed Eisenhower as a guileless simpleton, even Summers' most ardent critics never question his intellect--they question his management style.

It is one of the great ironies of the current dispute that Summers is often derided as behaving like an autocratic CEO; as Harvard economics professor and former university provost Jerry Green astutely points out, "Larry's only previous executive position was as Secretary of the Treasury, a post he held for less than two years. He is an academic at heart."

Indeed, from 1975 through 1991 when he went to Washington as the chief economist of the World Bank, Summers spent all but one year immersed in academia as a doctoral student, an associate professor, and ultimately one of the youngest tenured professors in Harvard's recent history. As proof of his academic bona fides, Summers won the prestigious Clark Medal in 1993. Granted every other year to the outstanding American economist under 40, the Clark Medal is widely viewed as a precursor to an eventual Nobel Prize.

But as Harvard's president, Summers's activities have often more resembled those of a CEO than those associated with the traditional fund-raising Energizer Bunny-type university president. Since assuming his office in July 2001, Summers has tried to actually run the university. While that may well be what the search committee which hired Summers had in mind, such active stewardship certainly hasn't been welcomed by a large segment of the faculty.

AMONG HIS MANY CEO-LIKE ACTIONS, Summers has driven Harvard's traditionally undergrad-averse faculty to become more engaged in undergraduate education. The merits of this movement aside, Harvard faculty, as a rule, does not respond well to being pushed.

Moreover, he controversially decreed that undergraduate education should be more weighted to mathematics and the sciences. As former provost Green points out, "He has a sincere belief that Harvard graduates will need more science and technical background in the next 50 years than they did in the last 50. In the process of discussing this belief, he has hurt the feelings of humanities faculty members and others who feel that their work is not valued by the president."

Summers has also been progressing on a dramatic expansion of Cambridge-based Harvard into neighboring Allston, a major long-term project that will affect the university for generations. The faculty expects to have a major voice in the Allston expansion and many professors feel Summers has made his plans without receiving adequate quantities of their advice and consent.

And of course, Summers has made a habit of attacking the left-wing politics and the political correctness that have become such a staple of the modern academy.