Another Month, Another Flap

Why does President Summers keep falling into public relations fiascos?

It’s not quite innate differences, but the university president everyone loves to hate has another cadre of academics angry at him. This time, specialists of Native American history and culture are upset at University President Lawrence H. Summers for a brief presentation he made to a Harvard conference on Native American studies seven months ago. With another distracting public relations disaster in the works, one has to ask: how can Summers avoid more of these sideshows?

First, though, we have to dispense with this latest round of criticism. Unlike in the innate differences debate, in which one could knock Summers for being provocative to the point of being unproductive, the charges leveled against Summers this time around are mostly groundless. Indeed, before Harvard’s overeager Summers-haters start a media-attracting row over the president’s comments, I’d like to set the record straight: the clear, overarching theme of President Summers’ remarks was one of genuine concern for Native American communities in the United States, especially when you read his entire speech. Even so, perception could yet trump reality.

When The Crimson contacted conference attendees, many lobbed stingingly specific and overwhelmingly useful rebukes Summers’ way, calling his remarks “quite problematic,” and, “really, really insulting.”

But that’s not fair. A few of those offended were excruciatingly detailed in their criticism. UCLA assistant professor Tara Browner wrote to The Crimson, “What Larry Summers said, and this is an *exact quote*, was that ‘The genocide of American Indians was coincidental.’ As in it was an accidental by-product of Western European and Euro-American expansion.” Far from an exact quote, Summers never used the word genocide, nor did he say that Europeans did not purposely devastate Native American communities.

The most you can really claim is that he referenced (Pulitzer-Prize winning) “Guns, Germs, and Steel” as a source for some of his information. There is plenty you can criticize about Summers, his leadership style, his policies, even his personality. But this doesn’t deserve such vociferous attacks.

Even so, if the rest of Summers’ time at Harvard is spent responding to phantoms of insensitivity, his tenure will be frustratingly unproductive. And now that he has gained a reputation for tactlessness, people are even more likely to find him grating, whether he’s really being insensitive or not. So it is up to Summers to do something different.

The easiest thing to do would be for Summers to just keep his mouth shut, stay away from contentious issues, step on no toes. Harvard, though, deserves better than an intellectually limp president. Even many of his critics would agree.

Instead of saying less, Summers should say more. On the record, that is. Summers can avoid scandals like this from developing into national news by releasing more information earlier. With a new press officer in place, Summers has the opportunity to diffuse flaps like these and forge better press relations by compiling and releasing transcripts promptly, not, say, seven months after the fact (the president’s office only made a transcript of his remarks available to The Crimson this week—the conference convened last September). The best way to prove that you haven’t been insensitive is to put everything on the record quickly.

In both Innate-gate and this fresh scandal, thorough examination of the transcripts of Summers’ remarks has blunted, and in some cases contradicted, criticisms. Sure, The Crimson will cover it, the Drudge Report might pick it up, and the president’s office might get a few nasty e-mails. But people like me both in the student body and the Faculty won’t even have the opportunity to be angry at Mass. Hall for seeming secretive, and those who rely on hearsay and misinformation for their anti-Summers ammunition, as many did in Innate-gate, will be discredited. I believe that Summers is well-intentioned and sincere; he just needs to prove it to us when we want to make sure.

Releasing everything—transcripts, meeting notes, administrative documents, memos, you name it—isn’t just in the best interest of the Harvard community, but of the president’s office, too. And this doesn’t just apply to potential scandals. Students and Faculty often feel out of the loop in Allston decision making, the Curricular Review, shakeups in administration. Whether or not this perception is warranted, they complain that communication between Mass. Hall and the rest of the University community often comes in the form of press releases, not the raw, meaty documents that real stakeholders at the University expect.

The validity of that perception is debatable. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have consequences (need I even mention the lack of confidence vote?). From now on, Mass. Hall should err on the side of releasing too much information, not too little. Compile transcripts of Summers’ remarks at small conferences such as the Native American studies conference last September, and release them immediately. Put updated Allston planning maps on the web, no matter how rough they may be. Have the Curricular Review open and post committee meeting notes. Or, if that’s a little too controversial, at least release the (long-completed) General Education committee report. I bet we’ll discover a University president working hard in a sincere effort to better the Harvard community. The only other option is to let us continue to assume the worst.

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