Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Cold and Blustery on the Charles

Judging by the way the wind is blowing in Cambridge, February is officially "Not Larry Summers" month in the city on the Charles. After staying on as Harvard's president despite a no-confidence vote by its faculty last year, but in the face another such vote scheduled for next week, President Summers has resigned.

Last year, the Summers found himself in hot water over some widely misunderstood remarks he made at an academic conference regarding why differences in the variability of intrinsic aptitude across the sexes may lead to fewer women in elite university science departments. Some with better vantage points than I are saying that by now most people have moved on to some of his other offenses.

There is merit in that argument, but not to be underestimated is an impact of a change in norms. When it is not considered appropriate to criticize someone in a position of power, too few people do it. But once it becomes acceptable or even commendable to do so, the inertia shifts, and the new norm is to offer too much rather than too little criticism. Shifting norms become much more important at a place like a university, where there is very little relevance of the conventional "bottom line" that keeps for-profit institutions from straying too far afield.

What I find most interesting about the episode (apart from the fact that many Harvard faculty seem to be in need of a good elementary statistics class) is that there is a strong contingent of support for Summers among the undergraduates. The editorial page of The Harvard Crimson is eloquent today:

More importantly, the seeds sown for improvement in the undergraduate experience under Summers’ presidency are indicative of his larger willingness to press for change at an institution by nature resistant to it.

Summers unforgivingly, and often publicly, made known his prioritization of certain academic initiatives over others. Given the occasion to address a crowd, Summers rarely failed to mention his belief that this era would be defined by a revolution in the life sciences and by the quickening pace of globalization. His acting on these beliefs has led, for example, to the bolstering of the Broad Institute, the planning of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, and the establishment of the Harvard Initiative for Global Health and a Chilean office of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies. It was his brazen trumpeting of these priorities that increased his popularity with students and with a public uninterested in the more esoteric aspects of academia.

Through these and other initiatives, Summers hoped to fashion Harvard into a university that more directly served his conception of the public good. To this end, he has emphasized (and correspondingly obtained funding for) increased research in the life sciences and in expanding Harvard’s global footprint.

It is the prerogative of and, more, the duty of a university president to shift a university’s focus when the demands of the era require it. After all, Harvard, like most other schools founded in colonial days, was established primarily as a training institute for clergy. Reform has come only in battles against the wishes of the entrenched interests of the time. Harvard’s greatest leaps of progress have come when its presidents have fought to modernize the University and redefine its role in accordance with the progressive goals of their respective eras.

Ultimately, too many of today’s entrenched interests felt threatened—justified or not—by Summers’ vision, or by the manner in which he sought to bring his vision to fruition. That was his ultimate undoing.
Well put. As the title of the editorial makes clear, this truly is "Harvard's Loss."


Arun Khanna said...

Larry Summers raised the important issue of strengthening science and mathematics coursework for future students (presumably cutting back to an extent on liberal arts courses). I think Summers will be proven dead right in the future. Unfortunately at present, his Presidency is dead.
Harvard's loss is America's gain since Summers will be a strong candidate for public service in a future democratic administration.

Anonymous said...

I believe the key reasons for Summers's resignation are caught in this excerpt from yesterday's "Chronicle of Higher Education".

The key fact pushing the pace of events this week, according to the senior professor, is that today is the last day the agenda can be changed for next Tuesday's meeting of Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences. At that meeting, faculty members had planned to vote on a motion of no confidence in Mr. Summers's leadership. The faculty, which includes Harvard's undergraduate and graduate divisions and is the largest academic unit on the campus, passed a similar no-confidence measure last March.

Next Tuesday's meeting could have proved exceptionally embarrassing to Harvard and to the Harvard Corporation, its seven-member governing board, the professor said, because of other items on the agenda.

Chief among them was to be a motion to censure Mr. Summers for his role in what has become known as the "Shleifer affair," the professor said. Andrei Shleifer, a prominent Harvard economist and personal friend of Mr. Summers, was a defendant in a lawsuit alleging that he and a former staff member had defrauded the U.S. government through a program intended to help Russia make the transition to a market economy.

Harvard defended Mr. Shleifer throughout the litigation and last August agreed to settle the case by paying a $26.5-million penalty. Mr. Shleifer has never been disciplined by Harvard, and in fact was awarded a new chair during the litigation, said the professor who spoke to The Chronicle. As a result, Mr. Shleifer's relationship with Mr. Summers has drawn increasing criticism. The professor said the combination of the penalty and legal fees had cost Harvard $44-million.

Another motion to have been offered at the faculty meeting would have assailed the governing board for inadequate governance, the professor said, and would have singled out members of the Harvard Corporation by name for criticism.

Jeff Young said...

I agree that the public comments were more important to the media than the internal struggles. Everyone learns with experience, and I am sure Summers learned that you can't have undertake a major two front campaign. If he had made his public comments, but remained beholden to the old constituencies at the school, and was a great fund raiser - maybe he would have been fine. Conversely, if he had undertaken the overhaul of the old guard, but had stayed completely under the radar otherwise - maybe that would have been successful.

Bob said...

What is one supposed to make of the following statements in a Harvard Crimson article on Larry Summers and the Shleiffer affair? -

The recent outcry over the Shleifer matter underscored divisions in the [Harvard] Faculty. While many professors have brandished harsh words to describe the University’s handling of the case, Harvard economists have been virtually unanimous in defending their colleague.

Glimp Professor of Economics Edward L. Glaeser said last week that the Institutional Investor article “is a potent piece of hate creation—not quite ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,’ but it’s in that camp.”