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John Harvard's Journal

Weighing In

May-June 2006

The resignation of President Lawrence H. Summers became grist for a torrent of commentary worldwide, much of it highly political, even ideological. On March 12, in the Sunday Telegraph, Tisch professor of history Niall Ferguson—no left-wing firebrand—coolly summarized the rhetorical warfare this way: “Either a reactionary despot has been deposed by faculty freed0m-fighters, or a bold reformer has been thwarted by vested interests.” (At its extreme, the latter argument extended to claims that the president was being ousted by tenured opponents intolerant of his ideas and speech.) Without documenting all the passionate extracurricular volleys, here is a sampling of faculty members’ different opinions.

 

“The Debacle at Harvard”

Mr. Summers was trying to hold Harvard to a higher standard of excellence than it was becoming used to—exemplary scholarship from all faculty, hiring only the best without the pressure to meet a quota based on sex, and a challenging curriculum that gets the best out of both students and faculty.…

Harvey C. Mansfield
Jon Chase / Harvard News Office

Mr. Summers proposed a curriculum review that would result in solid courses aimed to answer students’ needs, replacing stylish courses designed to appeal to their whims.…Mr. Summers also began a move to rein in grade inflation; he dispelled some of Harvard’s political correctness by inviting conservative speakers and looking for conservative professors to hire; he transformed the policy of affirmative action by reducing the pressure to hire more blacks and women as such; he opposed Harvard’s hostile attitude toward the U.S. military. Besides these measures of cultural politics, he sought to put or keep Harvard first in science….

Thanks to the Harvard Corporation, all this effort is suspended—who knows for how long. In forcing Mr. Summers out, the Corporation surrendered to the “diehard left” ([Frankfurter professor of law] Alan Dershowitz’s expression) which had opposed him from the start and is now celebrating in triumph and glee.…I do not know, but I suppose this was done out of sympathy and fear combined, probably out of fear of not showing sympathy. The Corporation is composed of liberals and leftists, and was reportedly led in this action by the feminist Nannerl Keohane, former president of Duke University, and by liberal demo-crat Robert Reischauer, president of the Urban Institute.

But the Corporation was also afraid of showing too much sympathy with the left. It could not summon the manly confidence to avow that Mr. Summers was being ousted because his agenda of renewal clashed with the diversity agenda of the feminist left and its sympathizers.

Harvey C. Mansfield, Kenan professor of government, excerpted with permission from a manuscript submitted to the Claremont Review of Books

           

“Wanted: A Leader”

Summers was not forced out by a radical “segment” of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. He was not forced out because bold visions threatened a complacent faculty. Most faculty in arts and sciences are eager to reinvigorate undergraduate education, strengthen cutting-edge science, internationalize the university, develop the Allston campus, and encourage collaboration among the schools. Any president of Harvard at this time would have essentially the same goals.

Robert D. Putnam
Justin Ide / Harvard News Office

Achieving such goals requires raw intelligence, which Summers has in abundance. But more crucial to leadership than IQ is the ability to inspire others with your vision and to help them come to see it as their vision, too. You must understand the culture of an institution even as you try to change it. Business Week wrote: “Summers joins the ranks of recent leaders brought in to generate change in organizations only to misfire and fail, [such as] Carly Fiorina at Hewlett-Packard.” Giving orders goes only so far. As the late Richard Neustadt, America’s premier student of the U.S. Presidency, put it: Presidential power is the power to persuade.…

[Summers] came in with much political capital, but frittered it away on battles he did not need to fight. He alienated even those—from all disciplinary and ideological backgrounds—most committed to his goals and to Harvard.

Take one of Summers’ highest priorities—reforming the undergraduate curriculum. Successful curricular reform requires that hundreds of instructors change their behavior in hundreds of classrooms that cannot be policed. The hard part about curricular reform is not finding “the right answer,” because there is no single right answer. The hard part is inspiring and persuading.…

Bold statements and a forceful personality are not enough. Indeed, clumsily applied, boldness and forcefulness can lead to weakness. What was most dispiriting about Summers’s final year to those who shared his values was that he relinquished the capacity to say no, even to bad ideas.…Political correctness was not the root of the problem, and politically correct decisions could not solve it.…

Above all, the power to persuade depends on the capacity to maintain trust. Colleagues need to believe that leaders will not only act honorably but speak truthfully. Once a faculty comes to believe that their president is “less than truthful” (as a former dean reportedly said of this president), the basis for leadership of any kind has vanished.

…Harvard faculty have followed strong leaders in the past, and they will follow them in the future. What Harvard needs now is a boldly reformist leader, but one who actually knows how to make reform happen.

Robert D. Putnam, Malkin professor of public policy and a past dean of the Kennedy School of Government, excerpted from an essay published in the Boston Globe on March 5

 

“A Continuing Agenda”

Ironically, the events of recent weeks have helped bring into focus an agenda for this faculty and the University that appears to be widely shared and well in place. What is important to recognize, as well, and what gives us cause for optimism looking ahead, is that this agenda had in fact emerged in its broad outlines from before the time Larry Summers started as president, and can surely be expected to continue to have our support. Let me offer a bit of detail.

Andrew Gordon
Kris Snibbe / Harvard News Office

First, on the matter of undergraduate education: the Boston Globe in an editorial today stated that Larry Summers “started a conversation about revamping the curriculum and he pushed professors to do more undergraduate teaching.” This is incorrect. It would be much more accurate to say that he joined and continued an already lively conversation. It was on the watch of Neil Rudenstine as president, with Jeremy Knowles as dean and Susan Pedersen as dean for undergraduate education, that an important initiative was launched to re-energize the freshman seminar program, and put more faculty into small classes with students.… Likewise, it was Dean Knowles in about 1997-98 who set forth a goal of expanding the size of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, initially by 10 percent from 600 to 660, in significant measure to allow greater faculty involvement in undergraduate teaching. This previous administration also conducted a review of the Core curriculum, which…in many ways prepared the ground for, and made people see need for, the current more ambitious review effort. It was also at the end of the 1990s that the committee on study abroad led by Bill Fash [Bowditch professor of Central American and Mexican archaeology and ethnology] and Bill Kirby began to push for expanding the opportunities for students to study abroad.…

Investing in the sciences was also an emerging priority in these years, as planning began for the major new buildings on the north side of Harvard Yard. And the importance of moving to take advantage of the extraordinary opportunity to develop a new campus in Allston was certainly made clear by the end of Neil Rudenstine’s presidency.…

In sum, Larry Summers came to the Harvard presidency having been given the gift of an ambitious agenda already emerging in outline, given its shape by the efforts of this faculty and previous administrators. He articulated that agenda forcefully on many occasions, and has advanced it effectively in some areas. I am not particularly interested in going into detail on the ways in which his leadership was too often not effective.

It is up to us to carry forward, and I am optimistic that there is considerable and deeply rooted consensus on the major tasks before us.

From remarks at the March 7 Faculty of Arts and Sciences meeting by Andrew Gordon, Folger Fund professor of history, chair of the history department, and co-chair of the caucus of FAS chairs

 

“Ensuring Intellectual Diversity”

Ruth R. Wisse
Jon Chase / Harvard News Office

FAS is currently at pains to convince itself and the world that it ousted President Summers solely because of his style of governance. Yes, and Jack Abramoff was only trying to promote Native American culture. Alas for the spinners, the minutes of [the] faculty record the nature of the attacks against the president: complaints about his governance were merely the more decorous finale of a sustained and exceptionally nasty political onslaught.…

My colleagues say they are now eager to get on with the business of curricular reform that they subordinated for several years to the task of expelling President Summers. The most crucial reform would require ensuring greater intellectual diversity among those who teach the students. The dearth of conservative views…affects the nature of what is being taught, as well as the intellectual mettle of those doing the teaching. Students, irrespective of their own views, are being short-changed by a faculty that does not even acknowledge, much less wish to tackle, diverse opinions.

Ruth R. Wisse, Peretz professor of Yiddish literature and professor of comparative literature, excerpted from a letter to the Harvard Crimson, March 17

 

“We, the Faculty”

I believe that we, the faculty, share the view that the student experience is the hub around which the University revolves. The most rewarding, moving experience for professors is seeing students outgrow us by transforming themselves into educated, independent leaders. To all families who have sent children to Harvard: thank you for raising your remarkable children and letting us participate in their transformation.

Caroline M. Hoxby
Stephanie Mitchell / Harvard News Office

We, the faculty, share the view that a Harvard education is great but should be greater. I was a Harvard student myself and have never met anyone whose university gave him more or better opportunities than I was given, yet I am frustrated when I think how much better educated I could be. More than anything, the problem is time: knowledge expands every year but a student’s years here do not. We must make the years seem longer by ensuring that students never have to waste time or courses and that summer opportunities are as rich as—though different from—school-year opportunities.…

The faculty share the ideal that character, knowledge, and reasoning should enable a person to advance his ideas. Because we hope students will imbibe these virtues, we want the University to embody this ideal in its own conduct and not resort to politics that ultimately divert progress.

Who are we, the faculty? We have been called the hard-core radical left, but anyone who checks my credentials will see that the description is silly as applied to me. (My favorite topics include tax reform, incentive pay, and—yes—school vouchers.) We have been told that Harvard contains a junta for maintaining a politically correct police state, but I have not met those faculty. Since I have a wide acquaintance, I doubt their existence. The faculty I know are people of integrity, whose expertise is often beyond my ken but for whose dedication to students, research, and the good of the University I will personally vouch.

Welcome, Derek Bok. Welcome, Harvard’s president-as-yet-unknown. The future is before us; we have much to do and much need of you.

Caroline M. Hoxby, Freed professor of economics, excerpted from an essay circulated privately