The Magazine

Harvard Lays an Egg

The triumph of the diversity faction and the fall of Larry Summers

Mar 6, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 24 • By JAMES PIERESON
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When the late Allan Bloom visited the Harvard campus some years ago to deliver a speech on his bestselling book The Closing of the American Mind, he began his remarks with the salutation, "Fellow Elitists," a takeoff on Franklin Roosevelt's address years earlier to the nativist Daughters of the American Revolution which he introduced with the words, "Fellow Immigrants." Bloom was having some fun at the expense of Harvard's students and faculty, all of whom had competed mightily to gain entrance to one of the most selective and prestigious colleges in the world, only to turn around once there to adopt a posture of thoughtless egalitarianism. He was also making the deeper point that higher education ought to involve the pursuit of excellence rather than of vulgar equality or "diversity."

Bloom's indictment came to mind with the news of the forced resignation of Lawrence Summers from the presidency of Harvard University. Summers, perhaps in a somewhat ham-fisted style, had tried to make the case for excellence at Harvard but generated furious resistance and opposition in the process. His ouster speaks volumes about the anti-intellectualism that is engulfing Harvard and others of our great academic institutions.

Summers's resignation, to be sure, came as no surprise. The announcement even seemed anticlimactic in view of the battle that had been waged against him for more than a year by activists on the arts and sciences faculty. Given this strife, it was perhaps inevitable that members of the Harvard Corporation, the university's governing body, would sooner or later ask him to step aside. His term in office, which began with such promise, thus ended prematurely after just five years, the shortest of any presidential tenure at Harvard in more than a century. When Summers departs in June, he will be replaced on an interim basis by Derek Bok, who will turn 76 in March, and who was himself president from 1971 to 1991.

Still, notwithstanding its inevitability, the end of the Summers presidency marks a sad day for higher education. Despite all the talk about his abrasive personality and headstrong management style, Summers was a casualty of the left-wing ideological standards erected by Harvard's arts and sciences faculty. The historian Bernard DeVoto wrote decades ago that the Harvard he knew was "a republic within the Republic, a church that cuts across the churches, a class drawn from all classes." That ideal now seems far beyond our reach. The Harvard on display during the Summers ordeal resembles more a mad collection of petty interests pushing and pulling on one another for money, position, and advantage.

There are certainly many lessons to be learned from this debacle, but two immediately stand out: first, that our major academic institutions are run by their faculties, not by trustees or students, or by donors or alumni; and, second, that the activist members of faculties will not accept from presidents (or deans or provosts) any contradiction of cherished ideological assumptions, most of which revolve around the magical word "diversity." Presidents at other institutions, and administrators harboring aspirations for advancement to presidential posts, are bound to take note of Summers's downfall, and will certainly take steps to avoid a similar fate.

Summers was appointed in 2001, the 27th in a line of presidents that stretches back to Harvard's founding in 1636. He came to the post with a reputation as something of a wunderkind in the fields of economics and finance: one of the youngest individuals in modern history to win tenure at Harvard, the first social scientist to receive the prestigious Alan T. Waterman award from the National Science Foundation, winner of the John Bates Clark medal given by the American Economics Association to the outstanding American economist under the age of 40. By 45 he had served as chief economist of the World Bank, undersecretary of the treasury for international affairs, and, finally, secretary of the treasury in the Clinton administration. His impressive record, however, was accompanied by a reputation for brashness and blunt-speaking that many warned would lead to trouble in academe, where sensitivity and consultation trump just about every other virtue.