Good-Bye Larry Summers -- Without Regrets

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Mr. Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale, holds a doctorate in education from Harvard and was a Shorenstein Center fellow there in 1998.

“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.

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Jason KEuter - 3/2/2006

As a bystander, I must confess to enjoying a good Yeltsinesque Mafia Don naming university buildings after embezzlers and view the restoration of the moral order thesis in this piece as a whitewash of the moral bankruptcy of the non-market university itself. The author argues for independent, impartial scholarship immune from "market forces", but the author is really arguing for the kind of medieval order that professors have grown to love: that of tenure, apprenticeship and absolutely zero public accountability. In other words, the self-serving order of self-annointed experts. It would be more helpful if the author was willing to admit that most of what goes on in universities can best be understood through the lens of models of bureaucratic behavior, which find historical parallels in pre-democratic orders where corrupt ruling classes fed off poor tax payers but insisted their positions were merited by their understanding of the divine order, an understanding beyond the powers of most mortals.

Thus I see nothing wrong with looking at the university as one of many potential avenues of personal enrichment and gain. If the bottom line and money are such offensive values, might I suggest a life as a threabare coffee house scholar. Or would you simply prefer the quiet order of tax payer subsidies for today's high clergy, chaffing at the anti-intellectualism of business students who are only in it for the very same standard of living that the professors pretend they don't enjoy or value.

I believe historically anachronistic nobles found themselves relying on the King for favor and the king found himself relying on the contemptible money men to pay off the nobles with comfy church offices or a spot at Versailles.

Some one has to pay for all this. And those who pay are invariably chastised as contemptible. Wasn't it Balzac who said "behind every endowed university chair there lies a crime"? Viva Las Vegas!

Carl Becker - 2/28/2006

Surely there are most important and more interesting things to write about?

Seth Cable Tubman - 2/25/2006

First of all, let's remember: this man served as the communist Treasury Secretary to a ultra-radical self-serving dictator: Bill Clinton. I love how liberals sadly out of touch with the values of modern Americans, insist that everyone can have a voice, everyone can have an opinion--no matter how dangerous, so long as it is not one espoused by a well-educated, well-breeded moderate Republican, the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Justice Thomas and Alan Keyes, (the latter two, both brilliant Harvard-educated men, less you forget). It's sad that blithing intellectual idiots blister and burn about "intellectual freedom" but deny it to those who do not share their distorted view of the world.

Frederick Thomas - 2/24/2006

First, the candor of this article is welcome. Perhaps the self protective ring of academe is breaking down, which is welcome.

I would be the last to miss Summers. I do not think he came to the job with any particular credentials except whom he knew politically.

But the reasons ennumerated for his departure are facinating: he bucks the politically correct mob of ultra feminists, the doctrinaire socialists who hate capitalism, and the labor unions.

He also supports the memory of Taubman Hall, named for a later-convicted arrogant felon, but he generally supported honest capitalism.

As one who has noticed that labor unions succeeded only in exporting most of their jobs, or ceding them to illegal aliens, that feminists are frequently extreme, inequitable, childish and bizarre in their demands, and that socialism is dead everywhere except North Korea and Cuba, with their horrible human rights records, I believe that a dose of Summers is just what a dead-in-the head Harvard needed.

On the other hand you have the Taubman thing, which stinks of a cabal. Can anyone imagine the original Harvard keeping the name of an unrepentent felon on a building? In this case Summers shows a lack of morality and integrity, as well as judgment.

Sorry to see him go? Surely not. Happy to see the decadence of Harvard upset and challenged? Surely.

Charles Edward Heisler - 2/24/2006

Yeah, what in the dickens is a "weaned" student "on rational-choice
gamemanship and self-marketing, jumping to bottom lining in a kind of Nintendo game...." anyway? That sounds like just so much sloganeering by a liberal arts type but everyone knows that Harvard Liberal Arts Faculties wouldn't be caught dead sloganeering! Hell, they are serious about this student and education stuff.

Robert KC Johnson - 2/24/2006

I think it's also quite possible that Summers enjoyed such strong and consistent support from students because he (a) prioritized undergraduate education more than his two immediate predecessors; and (b) focused on reducing the financial aid burden on middle-class and lower middle-class students.

I taught at Harvard in spring 2005, and can't say that I recall encountering many "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." But if, in fact, such a description fits the average Harvard student, it really will make very little difference who actually runs the university.

Jeff Vanke - 2/23/2006

Summers didn't ask that every program justify itself in dollar terms. He asked that every program justify itself. Or at least that's my impression from a distance.

Surely not all academic disciplines are equals, especially because they exist largely independent of each other. (Their main linkage is their competition for collective 19-year-olds declaring majors, not the best barometer of quality or long-term value, however defined.)

I have one hypothesis why Harvard students backed Summers. Their professors wanted to play by different rules, as if tenure meant they must no longer be judged at the most fundamental levels ... as if tenure meant they could never again deserve the kind of blunt critiques that tenuredom is employed to dish out on a semesterly basis. Harvard students are onto their professors' game.

David M Fahey - 2/23/2006

Without denying that there are important questions at stake in the Summers controversy, I must protest that from the humble perspective of most American academics the unhappiness at Harvard affects incredibly privileged elites. It probably is true that what happens at Harvard matters much, much more than what happens at ordinary colleges and universities, but there may be a gain in perspective by recognizing that most Americans are educated elsewhere. In fact, in many areas of teaching and research Harvard isn't a leader. Harvard does many things very well, not everything.

S J - 2/23/2006

This is an interesting piece. Thank you very much for writing it.

As someone very much on the outside looking in, I find this story fascinating. The debate over what an administrator at a major research university should be is quite compelling and I hope Harvard is able to devise a more focused set of goals for its next president.
As a student who attended a small, public, liberal-arts college the role of the campus Chancellor was very much student-centric. On the other hand, the University President responsible for the entire campus system was (and is) unabashedly focused on research productivity and rankings.

Now, maybe if someone could bring together all of those goals - we would have the ideal administrator. I'll keep on dreaming.