Blogs > Cliopatria > Summers' Departure

Feb 22, 2006 12:25 pm


Summers' Departure



I agree with Tim Burke that a central lesson of Larry Summers’ resignation is that “academic institutions have become extraordinarily difficult to lead in some strongly centralized and idiosyncratic direction,” and a determined presidential agenda “would go a lot further in the hands of someone more skilled politically and interpersonally than Summers.” I was struck, in recent weeks, by how few members of the Harvard faculty spoke up in Summers’ defense. A leader with no followers has lost the ability to lead.

That said, it also seems to me impossible to disentangle Summers’ leadership difficulties from broader ideological issues affecting the academy. The original draft of the 2005 faculty resolution listed three specific events justifying a motion of no confidence: the president’s remarks about women in science; his handling of the Cornel West matter; and his denunciation of a proposed faculty resolution urging Harvard to divest from firms doing business in Israel. In an attempt to win the votes of more moderate faculty members, the final resolution excluded mention of specific issues. But had Summers taken the opposite position on these three matters, it’s very, very hard to believe that a no-confidence measure would ever have been introduced, much less passed.

Of the three, the women-in-science issue most clearly demonstrated Summers’ political and interpersonal failings. For a president of any university, much less Harvard, to deliver remarks challenging the defining creed of the contemporary professoriate—“diversity”—requires careful thought, not the sloppy and almost casual reasoning offered by Summers in his speech. He then forfeited any claim to the protections of academic freedom by first refusing for several weeks to release the text of his remarks and then repeatedly apologizing for not simply the tone but also the substance of his comments. And, finally, he alienated supporters among the faculty by attempting to appease his critics. It’s easy to critique Summers’ performance on this matter in retrospect, but it’s also easy to maintain that he mishandled this matter from start to finish.

On the other two issues cited in the original no confidence resolution, however, I’m far less willing to cite political or leadership failures by Summers. Tim notes:

It’s especially important for a reformer in an academic institution to try and formulate reforms in terms that are potentially applicable even-handedly, across the board, and offered in a collaborative spirit. If you want to argue that you expect your faculty to dedicate themselves more to teaching, for example, you don’t pick one or two people to harass over that question. You propose a general standard, push for it insistently in general meetings, and try to figure out ways to hold people accountable from that point onward for meeting that standard. You pursue practices of transparency and accountability that include your own office as a way to expose practices or behaviors that you want to reform.”

On the path that led to Cornel West’s departure, I would argue that Summers by and large followed this approach. By all accounts, he made scholarly accomplishments the preeminent qualification in his personnel decisions, across the board. He urged the faculty to pay more attention to grade inflation. He promoted a variety of (highly commendable) reforms to encourage more interaction between senior faculty and undergraduates. West posed a special problem: he was alone among University Professors, the most distinguished appointments in the Harvard faculty, in essentially eschewing research, and his courses had developed a reputation for sloppy teaching and grade inflation. In retrospect, Summers should simply have ignored him. But, on the other hand, the president’s approach—a private meeting with West to raise his concerns—was not out of line; it was West who brought the matter into the public domain, not Summers.

On the third issue that produced the no confidence resolution—the proposed faculty resolution demanding divestment from firms doing business in Israel, a motion that implied that Harvard would officially hold Israel to a different standard than any other nation in the world—I would argue that Summers’ conduct was absolutely right, and the president’s personal or political skills had no bearing on the criticism that he received. (Lee Bollinger faced almost identical faculty criticism when he spoke out against a comparable resolution at Columbia.) A university president has no more important function than to use his bully pulpit to speak out when members of the faculty have lost their moral bearings.

The anonymous comments from university presidents in Scott Jaschik’s piece depressed me; it seems likely that most presidents (who, after all, most want to keep their jobs) will take from the Summers affair a lesson that, regardless of their own interpersonal or political skills, it’s simply too risky to speak out on any matter that challenges the agenda of a committed segment of the faculty. As for Harvard, I hope the corporation chooses someone who will implement Summers’ agenda, but in a more skillful fashion; I fear the selection of a figure like Princeton president Shirley Tilghman, who would only enhance the power of the most extreme of Summers’ faculty critics.


comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:


Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Mr Murphy--

I wonder if you would be willing defend the proposition that "number of academic citations relative to people of one's own race"--Cornel West's criterion--is an accurate measure of scholarly merit (aka "solid scholarship"). I'd even be curious to see a defense of the claim with respect to number of academic citations as the measure of merit, sans racial proviso.

Do you mean to be making a claim about merit at all, or is that irrelevant to your point?


Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

I don't see it. Johnson's original point was about the "solidity" of West's scholarship, and you repeat West's claim about the number of references he's gotten. As far as I can see, there is no relevant connection between the one thing and the other. The fact that someone is cited by lots of people relative to others in his race, or relative to others, is irrelevant to the content of what he's produced.

As far as I can see, the 14 out of 17 statistic is no different from the racial one. It repeats the same quantitative criterion while omitting race. An improvement, but not by much.

In your original post, you said that West's classes were more "rigorous" than Nozick's, et al. Imagine that the criterion of classroom rigor was: "I have higher evaluations than every other black professor, and most other University Professors." Or: "I have better enrollments than..."

Would this tell us anything of interest about his ability to teach? It would tell us something about popularity. But teaching isn't a popularity contest any more than publication is (or ought to be).


Richard Newell - 2/28/2006

The position of University Professor at Harvard presents certain problems for post-tenure review. The position only demands a teaching load of three courses a semester, and the courses can be of the professor's own invention, and in any school and department he wishes. The position of University Professor was created precisely for intellects whose contributions crossed disciplinary boundaries, and whose work and contributions to the Harvard community were of the highest order. An example of where that can lead is, for instance, John Rawls taught a course in Architecture.

Logically, there's only one person in a position to evaluate the totality of a UNIVERSITY professor's work, and that is the President -- you can't have the chairman of, say, the Philosophy Department, evaluating Rawls' teaching in an Architecture course. Similarly, you can't have the Chairman of the Afro-American Studies Department evaluating teaching in the School of Divinity. Nor can a Dean of any one school evaluate work in another school.

Now as I understand it, Summers says he called in all kinds of professors for review. That would suggest he didn't single out West. Also, as I understand it, Summers' main gripe was West's more than frequent and lucrative absences from the campus on out of town speaking engagements -- something on the order of half the time. West's response was that he didn't miss classes, and he got high evaluations. The two men obviously had different views of the responsibilities of the job of University Professor, and since such responsibilities are seldom spelled out explicitly when the professor accepts a chair, conflict will sometimes follow.


Barry DeCicco - 2/27/2006

Actually, that's true. The university President should rarely get involved at that level, or he/she will end up being a full-time HR person.

Pulling the focus back for a minute - There's a common theme among many of these disputes. The common theme is that Summers wasn't competant at his job. He insulted people and picked fights for no good reason. That's fine for a brilliant (tenured) economist, but very bad for somebody moving into a high-level position, intent on making large reforms.


Ralph E. Luker - 2/24/2006

There simply was no threat to Cornel's position. His pride took a hit, but so what? Instead of publicizing his own umbridge, when faced with severe criticism from the FAS, Summers ate humble pie. Much good it did him. The real test of character in both men, I think, is what they do with the lemons they've been served. (Some lemons! I'd like to have had them.) If Cornel digs in and finally produces his book on Royce, we'll be better off for it. I'm particularly looking forward to it because I worked that ground in one of my own books.


Timothy James Burke - 2/23/2006

I would say that a university president should be pretty careful about singling out a member of the faculty to criticize them in fairly subjective terms about what does or does not constitute meaningful achivement, yes. Especially about making such a gesture one of the inaugural actions of their presidency.

Anyone with any sense of pride whatsoever would have a hard time not feeling umbrage at such an approach. Now if the person doing it was a silver-tongued devil, or a good friend, maybe it would pass muster. Or if it were done over a beer, or as a gentle remark during a friendly dinner. If Summers had read West's work and made a great effort to treat it seriously or respectfully, maybe he could make a remark. And so on. If the goal is to spur a great intellect to a particular vision of great achivements, that's what you do. Barring that, yes, you absolutely have to take on such a task systematically and without appearing to target any one individual differentially.

What Summers did was different, and I think West was right to see it as a crude attempt on Summers' part to put a notch in his gun.


Ralph E. Luker - 2/23/2006

As you well know, there was no question of Lawrence Summers threatening to "fire" Cornel. And, as you well know, I haven't said that that is what should have happened. Had there ever been a threat to Cornel's position, I'd have been among the first to protest.
The fact is, however, that, in the years subsequent to his appointment as University Professor, he had published nothing but books-lite. He was, at the same time, doing a great many things for which he had no discernable talent. Cornel took umbridge at his conversation with Summers and went public with it because it angered him. The fact is, however, that he's largely wasted the mid-years of his career without having published a second serious work of scholarship. My criticism isn't based in contempt for him -- as it is with many of his critics -- but from enormous respect for his intelligence. He should have known that he was largely wasting his time and energy and -- in the process the abundent privileges of his position.
I've never been a University Professor at Harvard, but I suspect that if I were I'd bring an academic respectability to blogging that Cornel never conveyed to his acting and singing career.
Seriously, no one -- not even a President or a University Professor at Harvard -- is beyond the judgment of his peers. Your position seems to put them beyond the criticism of us mere mortals.


Timothy James Burke - 2/23/2006

Ralph, seriously, that's a pretty scary comparison. This is not a you say tomaht-o, I say tomay-to kind of disagreement. Making a CD and appearing in a film is equivalent cause for review to plagiarism?

There's a mechanism at Harvard just like there is at virtually every college and university in the United States for investigating charges of plagiarism. There's a standard understanding in academia about plagiarism. You don't have to talk about Harvard's Very Special Professorship to see that this would be an issue.

There is no such understanding that appearing in a bit part in a film and making a rap CD are serious besmirchments of one's scholarship. Cripes, I write about computer games, comic books and cartoons in addition to southern African history: you begin to make me worry whether those are post-tenure reviewable transgressions. Not to mention blogging, surely a distraction from scholarly excellence.

It's absolutely fine for you (or in private, the President of Harvard) to wonder whether a rap CD is what a faculty member ought to be doing. It's even fine for you to write an article or a blog entry saying the same. But to move from that to saying, "The president of Harvard ought to discipline or fire a guy because of it" crosses a pretty serious line against academic freedom. It's certainly a line that any blogger inside the academy ought to protest, because there are plenty of senior scholars who think all blogs are as trivial as bit parts in the Matrix series or rap CDs. Do you want Ivan Tribble egging on his President to sniff out any bloggers in his institution? How would you protest against that if you're perfectly happy with the proposition that Summers had a justified case against West because West wasn't doing what you think a senior figure in that field ought to be doing? What's the difference?


Ralph E. Luker - 2/23/2006

I think we simply disagree about this, Tim. When Laurence Tribe commits plagiarism, it's time for post-tenure review -- University Professor or no University Professor. West's cd and film appearances were an embarrassment to the whole notion of what a University Professor is.


Timothy James Burke - 2/23/2006

Right. Summers had, or should have had, bigger fish to fry. Especially since he was by all reports pretty inept in his personal dealings with individuals, even those who sympathized with him. If you want to change a single individual's behavior, you'd better be pretty smooth in dealing with them. If you want to force them out, you'd better be a lot smarter in how you go about it than Summers was.

Ralph, you shouldn't expect post-tenure review as a University Professor if such a thing was not a condition of your hire. If Summers wanted post-tenure reviews of the University Professors, he should have created a process that made such reviews systematic. Seriously, that's what academic freedom is meant to protect you from: a president or administrator applying some ad hoc scrutiny to you as an individual out of objection to your politics, your arguments, your writings. If tomorrow KC's president said, "I think we need some post-tenure review. I'm going to go meet with KC to express my post-tenure review disappointment with him", we'd all know that was unfair. If KC's president tomorrow said, "We're going to create a post-tenure review system here and apply it methodically to the entirety of the senior faculty", that's a different matter.


Dale B. Light - 2/23/2006

Don't forget his attacks on grade inflation and his insistence that senior faculty, such as Cornell West, continue to do productive research and maintain high standards in the classroom.


Kevin C. Murphy - 2/23/2006

Well, hopefully there's a difference between the popularity of academic writing among a community of scholars and the popularity of a class among students. Yes, the rigor of an argument and its popularity are different and more often than not unrelated. Still, one would hope that the fact that West's oeuvre is much-referenced by his colleagues means that it's worth referencing.


Ralph E. Luker - 2/23/2006

Tim, I would think that even a University Professor should expect, from time to time, a post-tenure review. Your reasoning would put someone like West beyond reasonable inquiry. By the way, I've defended Cornel in other venues, like Conservativenet, but I see no reason why the president of a university should not be entitled to have a conversation with even a University Professor about whether he's making the best use of the time and resources of what is, after all, probably the most prestigious position in American academic life.


Robert KC Johnson - 2/23/2006

As I said in the post, I think in retrospect Summers would have been better served by simply ignoring West and making sure to appoint people with better credentials as University Professors on his watch. But, of course, that's easy to say in retrospect. At the same time, I don't think Summers was holding West to a double standard--University Professors are very, very prestigious positions within the Harvard structure--It wasn't Summers who went public with this issue, and his baseline request--that West, like other University Professors, produce scholarship while holding the position--was the same demand made of other University Profs.

Getting back to Tim's original posting about Summers' lack of political and interpersonal skills, it seems that the fact that there was one arguably underqualified individual as a University Professor was not an important enough issue for the president to have involved himself.


Timothy James Burke - 2/23/2006

One can debate Cornel West's credentials and achievements, certainly. But the time to do that at Harvard was before he was offered a University Professorship. Not some years after.

After that point, if a new president of Harvard wanted to enforce standards, he'd need to do it evenly. While KC is right that Summers set out to do in a number of important ways, I think he countered those movements by appearing to single out West in ways that appeared to be responsive to some of West's strongest political or intellectual critics. There's a lot of Monday-morning quarterbacking that went on afterwards about the specific contacts between Summers and West, but this is one of those "appearance of impropriety" matters. A leader in Summers' position needs to strenuously appear that he is not acting as an errand boy for aggrieved outsiders or unfairly pursuing any single individual within his faculty. If we're going to go hunting through the tenured Harvard faculty for professors that don't appear to merit the honor of their posts, we may turn up quite a few.

West at the least, whatever you think of his work, has a c.v. that a reasonable person can say merited the post which he was offered. One might disagree with that assessment: I am not terribly impressed with West's work in comparison with a number of other figures in the field myself. But I'd say that's a pretty subjective feeling on my part, and there is plenty of room for someone to think far more highly of West's published work without getting a squawk from me. His energy is pretty undeniable.

Other accusations against West that Summers' defenders have offered over the years--that his teaching was poorly regarded, or that he was frequently absent--simply don't hold up under scrutiny and have been debunked on a number of occasions by a number of sources, most notably West's own students. And again, if Summers wanted to hold his faculty to standards on those issues, it was a very bad mistake to appear to be differentially targeting one person. Believe me, if the leadership at a number of major research universities wanted to start making an issue out of absentee professors, I think they'd be dealing with a legitimate issue--but to do it, you'd have to be consistent, persistent and have good documentation to support any complaints. KC of all people should be sensitive to this kind of double-standard behavior and use of fuzzy and ill-defined measurements by an administrative leader out to differentially scapegoat someone, I should think.


Ralph E. Luker - 2/23/2006

I'm aware of the other books. I'd just say that some books are Beef Wellington and some books are Pop Tarts. A lot of Cornel-watchers have been asking "Where's the beef?"


Kevin C. Murphy - 2/22/2006

I'm not sure I'd agree that writing or co-writing books for more popular consumption like Democracy Matters, The Future of American Progressivism, The Future of the Race, Jews and Blacks, and Keeping Faith, among several others, all the while maintaining teaching, lecturing, and public advocacy responsibilities -- all in the past fifteen years -- constitutes a lack of "serious" work. But perhaps we have different expectations for how a University Professor should spend his time.


Ralph E. Luker - 2/22/2006

Kevin, It's fair to say that Cornel has published one important work of scholarship. He is said to be working on a second one -- on Royce. He has no known talent for acting or singing. Seriously, a university professor at Harvard ought to have done more serious work in the last 15 years than Cornel has.


Kevin C. Murphy - 2/22/2006

Fair enough. You're quoting from a press release, which might overemphasize Tribe's cachet, but I agree -- Tribe does have the credentials, and then some, to be a University Professor. And, like West, that hasn't stopped him from being active in the public world outside of academia.

That being said, I don't think Tribe is all that much more qualified than West, and I'm not sure by what criteria you've concluded that West is not an "active scholar of the highest capacity," and thus was unworthy of his University Professorship at Harvard. "The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism" is by and large considered a central book on pragmatism, and -- to quote from another press release --"It would be accurate to say that [West] has reshaped religious studies in such a way that his area of interest is now seen as central to the field," said Jeffrey Stout, a professor of religion at Princeton. So, what's wrong with his scholarship?

Also, could you point me in the direction of these West supporters who argue that his making a CD caused his scholarship to suffer? I've seen his detractors say things to that effect, of course. But, again, you might as well argue that keeping a blog, appearing on a history channel doc, etc. is also detrimental to one's scholarship.


Kevin C. Murphy - 2/22/2006

My point was only that West is an accomplished and influential academic who has been as actively engaged in his intellectual work as he has his side projects of political advocacy and hip-hop cds.

West's criterion that you cite above is not one I'd use, and is less relevant to the question at hand, to my mind, than his stat concerning 13-of-17 university profs. But, if nothing else, it does show that he has been both influential and prolific.


Robert KC Johnson - 2/22/2006

My mistake; I had clicked on Dershowitz's website instead of Tribe's. I always seem to get the two confused in my mind (famous HLS professors always on TV).

That said, from the article announcing the apptment: "Tribe, a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School who has been on the Law School faculty since 1968, is the author of "American Constitutional Law," widely regarded as the leading treatise on the subject. He is the author of over 100 other books and articles; his treatise and other publications have strongly influenced academic discourse and doctrinal development in an array of areas, including freedom of expression, freedom of religion, privacy, separation of powers, federalism and states' rights, and equal protection." Those are pretty strong credentials.

On West's accomplishments as Univ. Prof., for a humanities or social sciences prof., measuring one's own scholarly productivity by the amount of references you get is odd. I realize this approach is often done in the sciences and a few areas of hard social science, but the fact that West was often cited doesn't seem to say anything (one way or the other) about the scholarship he had produced as Univ. Prof. At the time, his supporters suggested that he hadn't been as productive recently b/c of his efforts to make a CD.

As I said in the post, in retrospect I think Summers would have been better off simply ignoring West and making sure to appoint only people committed to remaining active scholars of the highest capacity to the position of Univ. Prof.


Robert KC Johnson - 2/22/2006

The student response to this matter has been among its most striking elements. When I was up there last spring, students put together an impressive online petititon in Summers' defense; and there was almost no student participation in anti-Summers protests. And as recently as a couple of weeks ago, the Crimson had a strong editorial condemning the faculty for continuing to go after Summers.

Even if Summers hadn't retained student support, though, I would have argued that his reforms dealing with undergrad. education were a good idea . . .


Jonathan Dresner - 2/22/2006

It's too bad Kirby left when he did. If Summers had any class, he might recommend that Kirby's resignation be rescinded...


Kevin C. Murphy - 2/22/2006

And, as for cutting a CD when he should have been involved in painstaking, groundbreaking research 24-7...well, the same could be said of spending one's time on blogging. ;)


Oscar Chamberlain - 2/22/2006

KC Glad to see your endorsement of student evaluations. :)

More seriously, the different attitude of students as opposed to faculty does suggest complexities to the situation that go beyond press reports.


Kevin C. Murphy - 2/22/2006

I'm sorry, but you're mistaken. Larry Tribe is a University Professor, and has been since 2004 (during Larry Summers' tenure).

And Cornel West has also produced a considerable body of "solid scholarship" during his term. To quote the man himself in his discussion of the Summers episode(Democacy Matters, pp. 192-197) "I had more academic references in professional journals than all other black scholars in the country except my colleague Professor William Julius Wilson (also a University Professor); that I had more academic references than fourteen of the other seventeen Harvard University professors; and that I had nearly twice as many such references as Summers himself."

So, lo, it is possible to conduct research -- even among the hallowed ranks of University professors -- and campaign for Bill Bradley on the side (just as Tribe worked as an attorney for the Gore campaign.)


Robert KC Johnson - 2/22/2006

At least from what I have read (and I have no inside information, obviously), Summers recused himself deciding how the university would handle the Schliefer affair, because of his personal relationship. I would agree that the university's handling of this case, from what's been publicly reported, isn't impressive.

The issue with West wasn't that Harvard isn't home to "public intellectuals"--it always has been and probably always will be. It was West's holding of the University Professor's position (a chair reserved for the university's preeminent scholars) and claiming that his producing a CD or campaigning for Bill Bradley was as important as conducting research.

Tribe and Dershowitz are on the Law School faculty and aren't University Professors. When Galbraith was on the active faculty, he regularly produced solid scholarship, as did Schlesinger, who left the faculty in 1960.


Robert KC Johnson - 2/22/2006

I think Summers had been a quite active reformer. The creation of the Allston campus, although it predated his arrival, likely would not have gone as smoothly without him. He also was a stalwart champion of improving the hard sciences at Harvard. Regarding the Core, it's my sense (admittedly somewhat from the outside) that his withdrawing from the process after the controversies last year took much of the steam out of the process.

Regarding educational quality, he pushed very strongly for senior faculty to do more undergraduate teaching--symbolized by his own willingness to teach a course each year. He reformed financial aid policy to allow children of (essentially) lower middle-class students to attend Harvard for free. It was not for nothing that, according to polls from the Crimson, he retained overwhelming support from the student body.


Rebecca Anne Goetz - 2/22/2006

I honestly don't know about any reforms. Yes, the core curriculum reform was underway, but Summers forced out Dean Kirby, who was in charge of that reform.


Kevin C. Murphy - 2/22/2006

"West posed a special problem: he was alone among University Professors, the most distinguished appointments in the Harvard faculty, in essentially eschewing research, and his courses had developed a reputation for sloppy teaching and grade inflation."

He was? They had? From where are you getting this information? I graduated from Harvard in '97 and took Cornel West's "American Democracy" class, and it was no more or less sloppy or grade-inflated than any other large humanities course in the curriculum (and a good deal more rigorous than, say, Nozick, Gould, and Dershowitz's "Thinking about Thinking," or even E.O. Wilson's biology core.)

You'd also have been hard-pressed to find a professor with MORE interaction with the undergraduate community than West -- he was continually giving lectures and speaking on various issues of current import.

The new-research bit is a canard. Even notwithstanding West's already considerable output, Harvard has -- to its credit -- always been home to a certain kind of public intellectual. Is Larry Tribe hitting the books right now? Should we be expecting cutting-edge research from Arthur Schlesinger or John Kenneth Galbraith any day now? (Yes, I know they're emeritus, but the point stands.)

To my mind, the fact that, alongside his teaching, West has tried, -- with books like Democracy Matters, the hip-hop cds, the Matrix movies, etc. -- to bridge the academic-popular divide speaks in his favor. At any rate, it didn't differentiate him from many other big names at Harvard.

Given all this, I'm forced to conclude that Summers chose to act the Alpha Dog on West for more unsavory reasons.

In regards to the other comment thread above, it seems Summers also played fast and loose with $44 million to help out a friend in trouble in what's being deemed the "Schleifer affair."


Oscar Chamberlain - 2/22/2006

I know little about the Summers' controversies beyound the comment on women and science. Could you give some examples of how he was trying to reform things?


Dale B. Light - 2/22/2006

Excellent post, especially regarding the implications of Summers' firing. I would point out that the "Chronicle of Higher Education" cites Summers' association with some financial irregularities as a problem, too. It is unfortunate that Summers' fall will encourage those highly committed ideologues who would constrain freedom of discourse, but I fear that is unavoidable. The academic establishment from top to bottom is faced with a situation in which the essential choice is between reform and irrelevancy. Summers was a reformer. We need more like him.