Thursday, February 17, 2005

Brutality in Harvard Yard

This morning, before embarking on the most delightful 15 minute commute in America, I sampled some of the news emanating from Harvard Yard about Larry Summers. Apparently, the faculty are not happy. The able journalistic team of and are on the case. From the second paragraph:

Before this week, professors questioned Summers only in isolated contexts. But at Tuesday’s Faculty meeting—the first since Summers’ controversial remarks on women in science a month ago—what had been cacophonous complaints merged into a single cry against what some speakers called Summers’ reckless leadership.
Apparently, Larry is now being chastised for having lit a similar fire under all of them. And apparently unlike Social Security, this really is a crisis:
“The crisis of governance and leadership here goes much deeper,” Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology Theda Skocpol said at the meeting. “We cannot easily have a new social contract, when there are many indications that we never had a genuine social contract in the first place.”

I am going to suggest that what the faculty have at Harvard is an employment contract, not a social contract, and it is probably one of the most generous such contracts on the entire planet. I have a similar one at Dartmouth.

To my understanding of his time at the helm, Larry hasn't done anything to prevent the Harvard faculty from doing their research and teaching their classes. He has in various contexts challenged them to do a better job of it. He has spent considerable time thinking about the expansion of the faculty (nearly a 6% increase in two years, with plans for many more, according to this article by the same authors), the relocation of parts of the University across the Charles River to Allston, and a review of the curriculum.

That Larry is focused on making Harvard the premier research institution of the 21st century seems to be lost on some of his faculty. Consider this quote from one professor who attended the meeting:
“I think that what’s happening is that lots of people in the University think they’ve been singled out for brutal treatment and are discovering that other people have experienced the same thing. People are putting the pieces together,” the professor said.

Brutal? You are just kidding me. Brutal? Our friends at define "brutal" as follows:
  1. Extremely ruthless or cruel.
  2. Crude or unfeeling in manner or speech.
  3. Harsh; unrelenting: a brutal winter in the Arctic.
  4. Disagreeably precise or penetrating: spoke with brutal honesty.
I have met Larry Summers, spoken to him on occasion, and watched his career for over 15 years. His behavior, as it would occur in an interaction with an individual Harvard faculty member, is consistent with #4, maybe #3, probably not #2, and certainly not #1. Brutal? Give me a break. Brutal is what the Marines face in combat. Brutal is having a child with a crippling ailment. Brutal is life in crime-ridden inner cities. Brutal has nothing to do with Harvard Yard.

The article discusses three episodes--the 2001 falling out with Cornel West, the decision to move part of the campus to Allston without a vote of the faculty, and the recent remark about the role of genetic differences in explaining the differences between male and female careers in the natural sciences. None of these episodes bother me, at least based on what I have read about them to date. Here's why:

1) As one of a very few "University Professors," Cornel West should be held to the highest standard in both research and teaching. It is entirely appropriate for a University President to articulate those expectations. It is unfortunate that Professor West decided that he no longer wanted to be at Harvard after the meeting, but that's his choice.

2) If Harvard can expand into Allston, the faculty should jump at the opportunity. The expansion will change many things about the campus environment, and it will disrupt some members of the campus community more than others. But it provides much needed space for expansion, particularly in the natural sciences, where new facilities are essential. Faculty should be consulted and involved in the planning, but at no point should they be given the "veto" power that they seem to expect. Big decisions require accountability, and the faculty as a whole are not accountable to anyone. The University President is. That makes it his decision, not theirs.

3) I don't know exactly what was said at the NBER meeting, but it sounded like the usual inquiry that scientists do. He was asking, "What factors explain the observed differences in the careers of men and women in the natural sciences? What evidence do we have that rules out genetic differences as an explanatory factor?" They seem like reasonable questions about an important topic. I'm curious to see the evidence myself.

I think that the political fallout from this is unfortunate--Larry does seem to have to apologize quite a bit. But, more importantly, I think the Harvard faculty are embarrassing themselves by elevating this to the level of a "crisis." And the climate on campus is likely to get worse, with another faculty meeting next week and the publishing of this book next month.

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1 comment:

Patrick Sullivan said...

It's clear that at least some on the Harvard faculty don't have the president they deserve.

He's making two points. 1. That men and women may have different values for alternative uses of 80 hours of their weeks.

2. That whatever the innate abilities of average, or even fairly far above average people are, it is irrelevant to the question of the handful of people qualified to be at top-tier research institutions.

I particularly liked his opening where he, almost schoolmarmlike, reminded his very elite audience that underrepresentation of groups isn't limited to women as top-tier scientists. That Catholics are underrepresented in investment banking, white males in the NBA, and Jews in agriculture. Tom Sowell couldn't have done it better.