'It Seems to Me' Now Always How it Seems to Them

President Summers' speaking style is not the stuff of Cicero, but he's learning to adapt

"Much as I admire the movie ‘Love Story,’” Lawrence H. Summers said in his inaugural address four years ago, “I do not believe that being president means never having to say you’re sorry.”

Indeed.

Faced with the wrath of an embittered Faculty, Summers spent a harried spring semester offering every conceivable variation of mea culpa: not apologizing (“I was trying to provoke discussion”), not really apologizing (“I’m sorry for any misunderstanding”), apologizing (“I made a big mistake”), and apologizing again (“I was wrong”).

In his first four years at Harvard, Summers has slowly discovered that his words, often more so than his actions, come loaded with a high potential to inflame the University. For a man who has never quite chosen his words delicately, it has been a hard lesson to learn.

“I certainly do intend to continue to engage in intellectual discussion,” Summers said in an interview this February, “but I’ve certainly learned some important lessons from this experience about choice of words, choice of subjects, the posing of hypotheses, and other things.”

Still, Summers has shown something of an innate ability to offend his audience—even when he’s trying his hardest not to.

At the Fong Auditorium in March, Summers was nothing but praiseworthy in his introduction of Helen Vendler, the Porter University professor, whom he called “a remarkable person.” But several humanities professors came away miffed by a comment Summers made in attempting to stress the importance of Vendler’s contributions to literary analysis.

Summers said that while other disciplines, from architecture to mathematics, would endure even without Harvard’s efforts, the humanities would not. “If the University does not foster, nourish, and sustain humanistic study, I don’t know where in our society that will happen,” he said.

“It was really remarkable,” recalled a humanities professor who asked not to be named. “Summers was clearly trying to throw us a bone, but instead he ended up calling our field of study irrelevant outside of academia. What?”

‘MY BEST GUESS, TO PROVOKE YOU’

Summers’ most incendiary—nay, provocative—remarks often begin innocently enough with his favorite phrase, “It seems to me...”

Speaking in Jerusalem this past December, Summers revived his criticism of campus activists who two years prior had called on the University to divest from companies conducting business in Israel.

“It did seem to me to suggest that serious and thoughtful people were advocating and taking actions that were anti-Semitic in their effect, if not their intent,” Summers said. “It seemed so to me then, and it seems so to me now.”

In that roughly 40-minute speech, Summers managed to utter some variation of the phrase “it seems to me” a whopping 18 times. At the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) in January, when Summers ruminated on the intrinsic aptitude of women, he said “it seems to me” eight times, more often than he said the word “science,” which garnered only seven mentions in a speech that was about science. Summers says “it seems to me” the way most people say “um.”

Why this vernacular habit? Benjamin Franklin called it “modest diffidence,” advising orators to avoid “the words certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion; but rather say, I conceive or apprehend a thing to be so and so; it appears to me, or I should think it so or so, for such and such reasons; or I imagine it to be so; or it is so, if I am not mistaken.” A spoonful of humility, Franklin argued, helps the assertion go down.

But Summers’ audiences are frequently unimpressed by his qualifying remarks. His speech on women and science, as Summers has repeatedly pointed out, included such caveats as “my best guess, to provoke you” and “if my reading of the data is right” and “I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong.” Yet many of those who heard the talk pointed out Summers was still stating his opinion, no matter how often he qualified it.