The Question of Leadership

The “lack-of-confidence” era begins

Can Summers still govern?


On Tuesday, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) declared that it “lacks confidence” in University President Lawrence H. Summers’ ability to do so. Since then, Faculty predictions about what the vote means for Harvard’s president have focused on everything from the probability of his resignation to the possibility of reconciliation. One thing that everyone seems to agree upon, however, is that it’s going to be a lot harder for Summers to govern if he stays.

This is only partially true. Summers, for his part, demonstrated an admirable consistency when he stuck by his proposals for undergraduate education and Allston expansion in a Mather House study break just hours after the vote. Though the Faculty’s lack of confidence certainly doesn’t help Summers advance his agenda, it is not the kiss of death for all of his initiatives.

To see how this will pan out over the next year—which will be a critical time of growth for Harvard—it is useful to look at three of Summers’ most controversial projects, the Harvard College Curricular Review, Allston expansion, and his proposal to create “divisional” hiring committees.

Let’s start with the Curricular Review, which the Faculty has to pass after the committees finish their work. The latest news from the Curricular Review front concerns the General Education Committee. Its initial recommendations, which Summers had a large hand in producing, fell flat. Indeed, after the dismal reception Gen Ed got, the sense among faculty now is that large portions of the Review will simply fail.

On this one, the Faculty has some very good reasons to be skeptical. Gen Ed’s recommendations were at best uninspiring and clumsy—like changing the Core to a system of distribution requirements and ill-defined “Harvard College Courses”—and at worst of dubious educational value—like requiring students to have an “international experience” before graduating. If other committees’ less-than-stellar recommendations get the treatment Gen Ed’s have gotten—and, given the Faculty’s new sense of empowerment there is little reason to think that they won’t—the Faculty is in a position to demand a more coherent set of recommendations not just from Gen Ed, but from every committee reviewing the curriculum. And Summers will likely have to cede even more control over the Review to Faculty.

Allston expansion, on the other hand, is a different story. It does not have to pass a Faculty vote, as Summers reminded the Faculty last year. The big problem here is that members of the Faculty are angry over the way the Allston planning process has proceeded. That is to say, largely without their input. Some correlate what they see as low endowment payouts with the looming Allston expenditure. On top of that come accusations that the University president is not vetting Allston plans early or often enough with faculty and students. Anger over Allston has already spilled into other initiatives over which the Faculty has more control, and it helped helped convince Faculty members to vote against Summers on Tuesday.

This is a dangerous situation for the University. If Mass. Hall moves forward patiently and does a better job of making the Faculty feel more included in the process, Summers will be able to build something across the River without bringing everything else to a stand-still. This is good. A Faculty more united in its opposition to Mass. Hall than ever before, though, will be a real challenge. Summers is right that the Allston expansion provides Harvard with the opportunity to create a brilliant new center of intellectual life at the University, one that will make Harvard stand out among its peers. But this vision won’t succeed if he can’t build adequate new Houses on prime real estate near the River, if departments in related fields get separated because one decides it doesn’t want to leave Cambridge, or if other entrenched Faculty interests have their way. It remains to be seen if Summers can keep his Allston plans from getting fragmented.

Finally, faculty are concerned about proposed divisional appointments. The idea is to set up new hiring committees for broad academic divisions within FAS, such as the humanities. These committees would look for talented academics individual departments might pass over because their work is interdisciplinary. Proponents have also tried to sell it as a way to increase female and minority hiring.

It’s not that this is a priori a bad idea. At best, divisional committees would add another layer to the Faculty’s talent scouting that will seek and promote deserving academics that departments, for whatever reason, overlooked. A less rosy, but still positive, scenario is that this will just add a few more sets of eyes to Harvard’s tenure process, leading to a wider pool of professors from which departments can make appointments. After all, even the most able faculty on departmental hiring committees will miss someone now and then. More bureaucracy might ameliorate this unavoidable problem. Or it might not. It may very well turn out that, in practice, divisional hiring committees, made up of the same sorts of people who staff departmental hiring committees, more often than not come up with the same recommendations as their departmental counterparts. Still, that’s not a reason to condemn the idea.

Rather, it is the implications of Summers’ proposal that some in the Faculty find unpalatable. Adding new committees independent of and above the departments seems to diminish departmental autonomy. Claiming that these committees will promote female and minority hiring implies that the departments can’t do this on their own and implicitly places the blame for dismal hiring statistics on departmental hiring committees. Summers will likely not be able to avoid this minefield if he continues to push for divisional appointments, and he probably shouldn’t try.

So, Summers is down, but not necessarily out. Allston, at the very least, is still on the table, though he’ll probably have to work hard to change his style (no matter what you think of it). And the Curricular Review may be off the wall, but as long as he decides to stay in Mass. Hall, Summers has a significant ally—time. The average term for a University president is around 20 years. Not every one will be as damaging as 2005 has already been.

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

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