Summers had been brought in to shake up Harvard after a decade of quiet yet uninspiring leadership by Neil L. Rudenstine.
The brash savant Summers was going to force a re-examination of the status quo, rediscover a bully pulpit dusty from disuse and take the risks that would protect the University from complacency at a moment of unparalleled prosperity and success.
All but his most enthusiastic supporters say Summers shook too hard.
What will be remembered of Summers’ first year is his dispute with Fletcher University Professor Cornel R. West ’74 or, more generally, how he managed to cripple a department that had taken a decade to build.
The controversy called into question whether the University wasn’t better off with sleepy old Rudenstine, who had at least parlayed an amiable personality into over $2 billion. No one ever called Rudenstine a “bull in a china shop” or suggested, as West did about Summers, that he was unsuited for the job.
But while the dispute with West dominated the headlines, it didn’t dominate Summers’ year.
On administrative matters, Summers proved an able manager—not surprising given his track record as treasury secretary. This year he managed to put in place a planning process for a campus in Allston, take necessary steps toward cleaning up the University’s relationship with organized labor and bring a more Washington-like structure to Mass. Hall.
But where the verdict on Summers will ultimately be decided is on academics—what he does for the quality of the College and its Faculty.
Like nearly every other president in the past century, Summers came in saying that improving the College would be a top priority. Unlike past presidents, Summers has prominently kept up the rhetoric for a whole year, making concrete as well as symbolic efforts to show that he is for real.
And while many faculty and students still anxiously await sweeping change, on the academic front Summers has been moderately successful in his first year—receiving credit for loosened study abroad regulations and efforts to rein in grade and honor inflation.
Outgoing Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles says that while Summers did not initiate either the study abroad reform or the grading and honors changes, he significantly quickened work on both.
“Certainly, the president’s interest and concern in the quality of undergraduate education has meant an accelerated pace of changes this year,” Knowles says.
Behind the fiery failure of the West debacle, Summers’ successes prove that, under certain circumstances at least, the president who is willing to forcefully state his opinions can get things done.
Summers could goad the Faculty to action—at least where his opinion matched prevailing but unacted upon priorities in the Faculty.
What Summers hasn’t shown is an ability to persuade the Faculty to shift course. Can a course of engagement and loud talk carry persuasive power on issues where the Faculty is of a different mind?