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John Harvard's Journal | Comment

The Way Forward

May-June 2006

What can Harvard learn from the administration of Lawrence H. Summers—cut short of its expected duration, and short of achieving many of its ambitious goals? In selecting Summers to be the University?s twenty-seventh president, the Corporation opted for a figure who promised to promote change, to bring force and energy to Massachusetts Hall, and to use his office to speak out on issues of institutional and public interest. Summers did all that, but did it almost exclusively as a solo act. Therein lies the most important lesson for Harvard?s governing authorities to consider as they begin the search for the University's next leader.

The way forward begins with sound self-assessment. Some supporters of President Summers attribute his resignation to political opposition (see “Weighing In,” page 60). There were indeed differences of opinion about political and social issues bearing on the University. But others knowledgeable in the field saw the unfolding story in other terms. Combining Harvard perspective with presidential experience at Stanford, Donald Kennedy ’52, Ph.D. ’56, wrote about these themes in the March 10 issue of Science (he is editor-in-chief). The academy, he noted, is horizontal: “There is little hierarchy in the organization, and the professoriate consists of smart, independent-minded people who don’t always do what they’re told. Governments are different, and Summers may have been unprepared for a venue in which failure to consult is costly the first time and unforgivable when repeated. I was happy with his appointment and thought his challenge to Harvard was timely. It failed not because of political differences or constituency mischief, though his image and its contrast with Harvard’s has tempted many observers to misallocate blame. The real story here is a classic tragedy: a brilliant thinker and scholar, capable of great leadership, brought low by flaws of personal style.” More succinctly, Robert H. Atwell, president emeritus of the American Council on Education, told the Chronicle of Higher Education, “I don’t just blame a recalcitrant faculty. In a place like Harvard, you can’t just announce your vision—you’ve got to sell it. He did this to himself.”

Some University officials who worked closely with the president on a range of functions and programs—and who in public and private enthusiastically endorsed his vision for growth in sciences, for Allston campus expansion, for curricular change, and for greater international presence—share this view. The president, they reluctantly conclude, failed as a manager: his ideas and energies remained personal; the hard work of reaching out to people and engaging them in action simply did not happen; colleagues were treated in ways that proved unproductive, and presented with decisions in which they had no stake.

As a result, those decisions were not always for the best, or did not win needed support from a large, complex organization. Although a building site and an initial project have been designated for Allston, other plans remain vague and unsettled. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences began adopting changes in College course requirements this spring, but there is little agreement on what general-education needs today’s undergraduates have, or on how those needs should be met. Although individual schools have identified urgent fundraising priorities, preparations for a University-wide capital campaign have repeatedly been pushed back, and will probably need to be relaunched by a new president. Faculty recruitment, development, and diversity may ultimately be advanced by the past two years’ controversies, but no one would have deliberately charted such a course to get there.

These issues join the agenda for the future. Harvard’s challenges can be met and its opportunities realized by sound management and leadership that is inclusive and consultative. It is heartening that the Corporation’s recently announced search process for the new president—soliciting advice and help from faculty members and alumni expert in the field—embodies these values.