New Era

When Larry met Lisa the English department was headed for terra incognita

Talk about blaming the messenger. All Professor of English Elisa New did was pass on some chit-chat she’d heard from a party—that Tom Paulin, a poet who was scheduled to give a reading at Harvard, had made anti-Semitic remarks to an Egyptian newspaper. Yet as word spread of Paulin’s views and a controversy ensued, New herself, a 44 year-old tenured American literature scholar, became the target of suspicion from both colleagues and outsiders. Then again, that can happen when the president of Harvard calls you his girlfriend.

A little over a year ago, New added the title of unofficial First Lady to her crowded résumé, which includes two books and the position of Head Tutor in the English department. Many of New’s colleagues knew she was dating University President Lawrence H. Summers before the Paulin situation erupted—those who hadn’t been told learned from The Boston Globe in June—but largely ignored the relationship as a private matter. Yet, once the Paulin scandal broke, professors wary of outside interference in departmental affairs wanted to know what information Summers had, what he thought, and what he might do. They could no longer ignore the fact that one of their colleagues probably knew the answers to these questions and could conceivably have divided loyalties. The case brought the awkward nexus of personal and professional connections between Summers and New into focus for all to see. “[The relationship] got slipped into somebody’s drink in the course of the [Paulin] thing,” says Professor of English Nicholas Watson.

The widely publicized result of the Paulin fiasco was the department’s public embrace of free speech as its highest principle. But the contentious process within the department as it decided how to respond to the imbroglio left another footprint: a lingering anxiety about the Summers-New liaison and its implications. As the most hands-on president in generations, Summers poses a particular challenge for the department: his views and initiatives can be of substantial importance, but are typically communicated through intermediaries or general public statements. He is at once omnipresent and remote. Thus, while the department is no stranger to dealing with couples—six of its senior faculty members are paired off—the presence of a figure more proximate to the president than anyone and yet constrained by professional boundaries to act otherwise can be a recipe for awkwardness at best and, at times, elicit allegations of irreconcilable conflicts of interest. The department’s other couples—Jorie Graham and Peter Sacks, Barbara Johnson and Marjorie Garber, and Philip Fisher and Elaine Scarry—have all proved their professionalism and independence in the open forum of department meetings, their colleagues say. But only half of the Summers-New pair is present at those meetings, making it impossible for her to pass the same test.

Faculty members are unanimous in trusting New’s professionalism—Department of English Chair Lawrence Buell calls her ability to keep her personal life as separate as possible from her professorial responsibilities “admirably scrupulous.” However, in the words of former Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles, the “perception of the possibility” of undue influence, access, or conflict of interest cannot be eliminated, and in a tense political climate, trust can only go so far. And even in the absence of any explicit indication of unprofessionalism, the unease and uncertainty surrounding the relationship can affect how professors interact with one another and come to decisions.

In the months since the Paulin situation was resolved, most professors say that the climate of free speech in the English department has never been stronger. But some still express concern that the relationship circumscribes departmental discourse—that the presence of the partner of such a contentious President creates what one senior professor calls a “chill factor.” Some professors believe that when Summers or his views are the issue, if there is an obstacle to free expression, it may be New’s presence itself.

Holding-Hands with a Hands-On President

Years ago, it would have been unthinkable for a Harvard president to date a professor. The University’s draconian nepotism rules proscribed a vast number of types of romantic relationships where conflicts of interest might arise. Once two-professor couples became ubiquitous in academia, these rules were relaxed to accommodate the rise of women in the workplace. But even then, there wasn’t much chance for a precedent to be set—Harvard hasn’t seen a single President in the last century.

Today, the nepotism guidelines focus on relationships where there is an imbalance of power, especially involving a direct supervisory role or instructional context. While of course the power gap between the University president and an FAS professor is substantial, at a decentralized university like Harvard, the president’s direct power over a senior faculty member is slim. The president has ultimate say over all tenure appointments, but New was hired from the University of Pennsylvania as a full professor, who is an employee of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) and whose salary is set by its dean. The president’s formal power is limited to appointing that dean and presiding over future tenure appointments. “Tenured professors in universities don’t report to anyone,” Summers said in a December press conference. Although the president supervises the dean, the practical power gap is probably greater between New and Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby than between her and Summers. “If a colleague were involved with the dean,” says Bernbaum Professor of Literature Leo Damrosch, “that would be a major problem. He is involved in a much more hands-on way.”

Yet despite Summers’ formal distance from the west wing of the Barker Center, the position of president carries with it one of the most potent bully pulpits in the nation. When Summers speaks on an issue, his views generally lead to wide reverberations without any formal exercise of authority. And he has spoken out more openly on more topics in the first 20 months of his presidency than his predecessor, Neil L. Rudenstine, did in a decade. “A president with a different style dating a faculty member might not have caused such anxiety,” Watson says. “But the president’s views seem to factor for some people quite a bit. He is the representative of the University, so there tends to be attention paid.”

Summers’ particular style of expressing himself leads to further uncertainty about the relevance of his views. His controversial Morning Prayers speech this September about anti-Semitism, in which he said, “I speak with you today not as president of the University but as a concerned member of our community,” was simply the most well-publicized example of his habit of making his personal views known while separating them from his official position. Summers’ reserve about giving directives as president reinforces the separation between him and FAS departments such as English, but the public nature of his views can leave professors and administrators unsure of how to act. “Anyone is entitled to a private opinion, but in leadership, when you express a private opinion in public, it can metamorphose into a public opinion,” says Gurney Professor of English Literature James Engell. Loker Professor of English Robert J. Kiely calls Summers’ influence on English department affairs “murky.” “Summers says frequently, ‘Personally I think X, but as the President I think Y,’” he says. “But if the person who holds the office really thinks X, maybe you should do X.”

A Matter of Trust

Every FAS department has to sort out how much it should solicit Summers’ views and how much weight to attach to them. But because of his relationship with New, only in English is his influence the proverbial elephant in the room.

Summers and New, who both recently split from their spouses, made no effort to hide their relationship last spring after they began dating during the fall term. They appeared together in public at numerous University functions, and New told certain colleagues in the department. But they also didn’t go out of their way to publicize it—many professors in English itself learned of the relationship from the Globe’s summary piece on Summers’ first year as president. Damrosch, who was on leave this fall, says that if it weren’t for the publicity over the Paulin incident, he still wouldn’t know.

Now, the uncertainty over whether the relationship exists has been replaced by uncertainty over what it means. If Summers stayed largely removed from FAS affairs, like Rudenstine, his relationship with New might raise eyebrows but few substantive questions; conversely, if he frequently intervened in his presidential capacity, there would at least be clarity as to the influence he wielded and how and where he chose to act. But his penchant for formal reserve mixed with public, informal statements of opinion leaves the relationship squarely in the gray zone. “It did lead to confusion,” says Watson. “The fact that it’s hazy is the problem. People don’t really know what’s going on.”

Summers and New both say they will go out of their way to avoid obvious conflicts of interest, such as tenure appointments in New’s field. No matter how scrupulously the couple acted in such a situation, the appearance of impropriety would be unavoidable—if Summers approved a candidate New supported, other departments could claim favoritism, while if he rejected one, other professors could allege that he was inappropriately going out of his way to appear objective. “I’m very careful in all sorts of situations to take the responsibility of making sure that I avoid being in any situation with a conflict of interest,” Summers said in a campus press conference. “I could certainly imagine circumstances where it could be appropriate for me to recuse myself with respect to a given tenure decision.” New declined to comment for this article, writing in an e-mail, “I don’t discuss my personal life with the media,” but according to Kiely, New has said she would try to stay off any committee or ad hoc where conflict of interest could be an issue.

It is in the fuzzy areas where Summers’ influence is unclear that some professors find the relationship more troubling. No one suggests that New serves either as Summers’ mouthpiece or his mole. But the “perception of a possibility” of immeasurable influence is impossible to eliminate, even though professors describe the department as a generally collegial, frank and open place. “Of course they talk to each other,” says Porter University Professor Helen H. Vendler. “What they say, no one can know.”

Although department members reactions to news of the relationship ranged from “interest” to “surprise” to “shock,” they say it was not a prominent or openly discussed factor in departmental operations last spring. According to Watson, however, “a certain amount of conspiracy theorizing” formed over two incidents: a departmental meeting about an ad hoc case and the Paulin incident.

Four senior English professors said that the department received reports last fall that Summers appeared to pay little attention to the testimony of outside experts at a fall ad hoc committee on an English department hiring decision.

At the following department meeting, professors discussed how best to communicate this concern to the President. “The question was, how should we convey our distress?” recalled one. “ Should we invite him to a meeting, or have our chairman tell the dean who would tell the President? And then there’s that other possibility, but nobody says that. [New] was a little red in the face.”

The department decided to send a message through the dean, but Watson says that many professors couldn’t help but look New’s way. “It was a tactical discussion, and there’s a problem having a tactical discussion when in the presence of someone’s partner. The question was, ‘Is he the kind of guy who would take well to this or that?’ And we had an expert we couldn’t consult. I thought it ought to be funny, but it was annoying, it wasn’t funny.”

The other event that brought scrutiny to the Summers-New pairing was the Paulin case. According to several professors in the English department, New learned about Paulin’s remarks to Al-Ahram at an economics department cocktail party she attended with Summers (a former professor in the department) and contacted her colleagues to inform them of the poet’s political past. “[Summers and New] were involved from the start,” says Watson, “and there was confusion between alerting and intervening.”

Professors say New was careful to insulate her public involvement in the affair from her relationship with the president. But the “perception of the possibility” still colored the discourse. “Some people were nervous about all this,” says Kiely, “nervous that she might tell him what goes on in our meetings.” At the full department meeting called to decide what to do about Paulin, according to a senior professor who was present, the suspicion boiled over. Reid Professor of English Philip J. Fisher asked her whether Summers, who had officially told the department it should do as it wished, had anything to do with her opposition. “If there was an uncomfortable moment in the meeting,” the professor recalls, “that was it.” Fisher declined to comment.

The Big Chill?

Those two incidents left no doubt that the department was, according to Watson, “temporarily in an adjustment period” while it learned to deal with the relationship. “We’re building up a relationship of trust,” he says. “But we need enough things to happen in a professional way for people to say they always will.”

Some professors say that they haven’t seen any reason to be concerned about New. According to Rothenberg Professor of English Homi K. Bhabha, if there is no evidence of undue influence, there’s no reason to worry it exists. In the workplace, he says, trust comes in black and white. “Do you believe that the colleagues you have behave professionally?,” he asks. “[The relationship] only becomes a problem if you don’t believe in their professionalism.”

Other members of the department argue that trust has to be earned, and that Summers’ liberties with speaking his own mind make it more difficult for people with opposing viewpoints to express theirs. New’s presence at the table, they say, feels like Big Brother. Buell says that although “Professor New’s presence might restrain conversation about certain topics in certain public situations...any such effect is marginal at most.” But some of his colleagues aren’t so sure. “There’s a chill on free speech because of the very free speech of our president,” says a senior English professor. “We have some courageous and incredibly articulate members of the department who will not let themselves be intimidated. But there’s still that chill factor.”

The center of gravity in English now appears to be somewhere in the middle—an acknowledgement that the situation has caused discomfort, but optimism that adjustments are being made. “It took the department a while to get used to the situation,” Boylston Professor of Rhetoric Jorie Graham writes in an e-mail. “But life is sometimes awkward. What we have all done is be frank with each other in meetings about how best to adjust to an interesting, sometimes less than perfect, arrangement of power lines and affections.

“Professor New has never made discussion hard or even muted,” she says. “Sometimes we just worry a bit about her feelings. It’s not just a new territory for us, it is for them as well. We are all doing a good job, it seems to me, figuring out decorum and ground rules. We are a department filled with people who trust and respect each other.”

According to Vendler, who was the department’s liaison to Paulin, professors are slowly doing exactly that—getting used to it. “It’s a nine days’ wonder,” she says. “Everyone says, ‘Oh, what do you know?’ and then forgets about it. It’s an awkward situation, as she herself has admitted, but you muddle along.”

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