Next Stop, No Confidence

All aboard the anti-Summers train

Even after Bob Rubin’s grooming, University President Lawrence H. Summers’ rough edges grate his contemporaries. The latest Summers brouhaha—courtesy of a hostile Faculty of Arts and Sciences meeting on Tuesday—is the same old story told and retold in The New York Times since Summers took over the Treasury. He’s gruff, sartorially sloppy, colleagues consider him aggressive, even arrogant. Also, he’s brilliant—one of the sharpest minds in President Clinton’s cabinet. He’s a potential Nobel laureate in economics. And he loves to argue. One gets the impression that he really is on a search for veritas. If he could just keep the back of his shirt tucked in.

It’s the little things that might yet sink the career of one of the smartest men I have ever met. At Tuesday’s Faculty meeting, professors presented a laundry list of petty slights, minor insults, and distant misdeeds that now add up to a perfect storm for Harvard’s president. The Faculty has stored up a cornucopia of complaints, each too small to warrant widespread anger on its own. But when great minds get together, they connect dots.

Almost four academic years into the era of Summers, what have they come up with? Among the Faculty there seem to be two general objections: first, Summers’ management style. Professors say that he runs Harvard like the Treasury, that is, top-down, not as a kind of first among equals à la former University President Neil L. Rudenstine. Second, there is a strong perception that Summers is secretive.

If those are the lines the Faculty has drawn, then what are the dots? Many in the Faculty are particularly incensed at the disappointing Curricular Review, so it serves as an appropriate case study. They complain that he uses his deans to do his dirty work on this one—top down—such as when Dean of the Faculty William H. Kirby heavily “revised” the preliminary Curricular Review report last spring. As for problems with transparency, a Faculty member told me anonymously that, “The rest of the Faculty community [not on the Curricular Review committees] has felt excluded from the discussions and decisions connected with the Review, something that the recent belated series of ‘Forums’ has not done much to address.”

On top of similar concerns about planning for Harvard’s expansion into Allston, a series of small blunders alienated one section of the Faculty at a time—first the highly visible African American Studies Department after the departure of Cornel R. West ’74, then humanities professors as he pushed for increased and improved hard science education at the College, now female professors. Add to that a national media storm over innate differences, which gives the Faculty added leverage, and you get an emergency Faculty meeting next Tuesday at which he might lose a vote of no confidence.

But I still can’t shake the feeling that if I changed my thesis topic to “Why Summers Should Not Be University President,” I would have trouble getting even a cum laude reading. Most of the Faculty’s objections are small potatoes. He is sometimes domineering in committee meetings. Cornel West left for Princeton. In 1991, he signed a paper that discussed exporting pollution to underdeveloped countries (yes, even this came up on Tuesday). The back of his shirt often isn’t tucked in. That is just a small problem, right?

And the more damning charges against Summers’ leadership are often more about perception than about facts. Summers is perceived to be anti-humanities when he might simply be pro-hard science. He is perceived to be tight-lipped when, sometimes, there might not be much to say—as in the case of Allston expansion, which, even now, is in its very early stages and subject to excruciating amounts of criticism for the number of actual decisions that have been made. He is perceived to be arrogant when he might simply be on the trail of a good argument. It’s that problem with the back of his shirt again—it’s not necessarily about what he does, but how mean-looking a grimace and how lackluster a handshake he gives when he does it, that angers professors.

This is not enough to prove that Summers’ sometimes unpleasant demeanor does not belie equally unpleasant policies and methods. My point is that the Faculty simply lacks a sufficient body of hard evidence to back up its many perceptions. The most reasonable source of Faculty anger with Summers is the diversion of funds from Faculty and other budgets to pay for Allston expansion—which will only benefit professors in certain fields, such as the sciences, that will get new facilities across the River. But this, along with minor instances of objectionable behavior, wouldn’t convince me to slap Harvard’s president with a vote of no confidence.

Summers, for his part, could also use some perspective. The best way to battle perception is deny the Faculty more ammunition. It took him over a month of bad press and an explosive Faculty meeting to release the tape recording of his now famous innate differences remarks. A word of advice: Let the Faculty have its way earlier and more often on little issues such as this.

The most frustrating part this wrangling, however, is that it won’t help tenure more female faculty, guide the lost Curricular Review, or make Allston a well-planned center of undergraduate life. Plus Harvard’s name will be in the news again, and the coverage is not going to be positive. None of it will serve my college well.

Stephen W. Stromberg ’05 is a Russian studies concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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