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Good-Bye Larry Summers -- Without Regrets

“Larry Summers has weathered the storm. He will be president of Harvard for a very long time,” a celebrity professor who runs a major center there told me a year ago, just after the Harvard Corporation had upheld the embattled Summers against faculty outraged by his political incorrectness. Even now that he has announced his resignation, Summers’ defenders will still insist he’s been martyred by professorial mandarins who hyped up his gross manners, his dressing-down of the African-American scholar Cornel West, and his suggestion that some kind of bell curve favors men over women at the top of the sciences.

But Summers’ presidency posed a danger far greater than any of that. “Larry was chosen to change the paradigm of university presidents,” my faculty friend reminded me, “and were he more charming, the transformation in the nature of leadership in the university would have been effected fairly seamlessly.”

That’s what’s scary: not Summers’ affronts to progressive goodthink, but his accelerated bottom-lining of liberal education’s goals. The problem here isn’t that a university president has to raise money, although that poses challenges enough; it’s that this former Treasury Secretary, World Bank vice-president, and champion of global capital is close to making market priorities the measure of everything.

Naturally, economics and business at Harvard flourished under Summers, but destructively. One conscientious Harvard economist, Richard Parker, couldn’t get the Summers administration to remove the name of former Sotheby’s auction emporium chief Alfred Taubman from Taubman Hall after his federal conviction, imprisonment and cynical self-celebration in Christopher Mason’s The Art of the Steal. Even more galling was Summers’ support of economist Andrei Schleifer after his conviction in the Russian bond mess. Then there was his more amusing indifference to the 2005 arrest of economics professor Martin Weitzman, caught neglecting the standard market practice of paying for goods by swiping the latest of several truckloads of horse manure from a neighboring farm.

Meanwhile, a 20 year veteran Harvard maintenance man was demoted and had his pay cut by a third for shouting at a supervisor. And student protestors had had to occupy University Hall for weeks (shortly before Summers became president) to win a minimum $10 wage for tearfully grateful Harvard employees.

It was priorities like that, not politically correct petulance, that turned even faculty moderates against Summers. His interim replacement, former president Derek Bok, is everything a champion of liberal education ought to be, but Summers’ departure can’t assure us that American universities will keep governing themselves as communities of scholars, independent of political and market riptides, and that professors won’t be degraded, by future presidents less offensive than Summers, into technicians in a cockpit of global-capitalist management.

Will colleges like Harvard keep nourishing American civic-republican leaders virtuous enough to save capitalism from itself, as they have sometimes had to do? Or will colleges be morphed into crucibles of a global ruling class accountable to no polity or moral code? As Harry Lewis, one of the two Harvard College deans who resigned under Summers, put it: Who will balance globalism with ''a recognition that the particular 'free society' in which Harvard exists is founded on ideals which Americans continue to be proud to defend?"

Will we keep reading about students weaned on rational-choice gamesmanship and self-marketing, jumping to quarterly bottom lining in a kind of Nintendo game of one-upmanship, opportunistic back-scratching, and resumé padding? Is that why two-thirds of students in a recent Harvard Crimson poll backed Summers? What new paradigm of university leadership will help them to set their sights higher, warding off the easy answers of neoconservative grand strategists and ditzy post-modernists alike? Harvard may or may not find answers, but it was racing to nowhere under Summers.