From the Presidency to the Cabinet?

Stanley Fish asks whether Larry Summers has the people skills to serve as Obama’s Treasury Secretary.

With the rumor mill abuzz that Eliot University Professor Lawrence H. Summers may get a second term as Treasury Secretary in the Obama administration, New York Times columnist Stanley Fish thinks pundits are not giving enough consideration to Summers’s tenure as Harvard president.

For example, Fish writes, whether or not Summers’s concerns about the scholarship of African American studies professor Cornel West were legitimate, Summers should have handled them more diplomatically:

Summers became a hero to the Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard, the New Republic...and the enemies of French theory and multiculturalism. But these were not the interests to which he was responsible as an administrator and pleasing them did nothing for the university he led.

(West eventually left for Princeton.)

Of Summers’s remarks about women and science, Fish writes:

Had a faculty member said the same thing (to be sure, Summers himself was a faculty member, but that identity was overridden by his administrative identity as long as he was in office), it might have rubbed some in the audience the wrong way, but it wouldn’t have been news, and it certainly would not have been the kind of news that caused many women scientists to say (before they were asked) that they would never set foot in Harvard Square.

Fish—a professor of law at Florida International University in Miami—believes these errors in judgment, as he sees them, should disqualify Summers from political service, which, Fish writes, also requires “people skills.”

It is not a question of intelligence and competence—everyone agrees that Summers is very smart and very accomplished as an economist; it is a question of tact, patience, poise, self-restraint, deference, courtesy, and other interpersonal virtues. Little that he did as president of Harvard suggests that Summers possesses these virtues. It may be that their absence would be less of a liability in a political setting than it was in an academic setting, but that is an argument that has not yet been made and I have doubts that it could be.

Read the rest of the column here. Read Harvard Magazine’s summary of the Summers presidency here.

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