Fifteen Questions With Judith Ryan

The musings of a malcontent professor.

Joseph L. Abel

Students protest the big man on campus in early 2005.

Weary of Lawrence H. Summers’s leadership, Weary Professor of German and Comparative Literature Judith Ryan is leading the newest charge against the embattled president. The self-described “cheeky” professor kicked back with FM this week, answering (a few more than) 15 questions about the campus-consuming controversy.

Fifteen Minutes: Why did you submit the new no confidence motion?
Judith Ryan: Because I felt that a number of us were concerned about the way in which President Summers is leading the University, particularly in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. And I felt that he himself has a vision of the educational project that is perhaps narrower than we’d like to see.
FM: But the Faculty has made its opinion of President Summers clear before. The Corporation disagreed. Don’t you think it’s Summers’ right to continue working until he resigns or is fired by the Corporation?
JR: The Corporation is indeed the body that hires and fires the President. There’s nothing that we can do about that. Basically the motion is to gauge the feelings of the Faculty, because obviously I don’t speak to every member of the Faculty.

FM: How much should the opinion of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) matter, given that the rest of the University—the majority of the University—hasn’t experienced any sort of similar uproar?
JR: That’s an important issue. I believe there is some discontent in some other schools, but more importantly, to answer your question, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences matters in the sense that it’s the home of Harvard College and that is one of the most important branches of the University, it’s the oldest branch, and it’s where we train undergraduates.

FM: What do you hope to see accomplished as a result of the motion?
JR: I personally would prefer to see President Summers step down from the position, because we gave him a chance last year to re-negotiate trust, and it doesn’t seem as if that has happened, at least not for everybody.

FM: Some Summers supporters have described the Faculty as ‘drunk with power.’ How would you respond?
JR: I think a lot of power has been taken away from us over the past few years, and what we’re trying to do is have some say in the fate of our own faculty and also in creating a vision for it.

FM: Last year, while clearly critical of Summers, you seemed like a moderating presence compared to others like Professor [of Anthropology and of African and African American Studies J. Lorand] Matory ’82. What specifically has made you take on a more active and radical role?
JR: I don’t actually think I’ve taken on a more radical role. I voted for the motion last year. I was concerned about the way President Summers was approaching matters of appointments and curriculum, areas important for us at Harvard. And so basically it’s a natural extension of this. Obviously, I hoped he would be able to work better with more people, but now he’s fired the very dean that he himself appointed, and that’s worrisome, because you have to ask how well can he get along with all the other people he has to get along with.
FM: Did a specific event push you over the edge?
JR: Yes, that was most certainly the resignation of Dean [of FAS William C.] Kirby.

FM: Are you normally a confrontational person?
JR: I’m a cheeky person. And I’m an old debater.

FM: You were on leave last semester. Do you feel qualified to be leading the charge after being absent during such a critical period?
JR: That’s a good question, but I was on e-mail and I received most of the e-mails that were going back and forth. I read the minutes from Faculty meetings and individuals were also e-mailing me, so I had a sense of what was going on.

FM: You, Professor Matory and President Summers—a woman, an African-American, and a Jew, respectively—have been the most prominent combatants so far. Do you see any significance in the fact that this conflict has centered on individuals who not so long ago would not have held positions of power at Harvard?
JR: I’m glad you framed it that way, rather than suggesting that women and African-Americans are in an adversarial position toward Jews, because that wouldn’t be right. It might very well be that people who for some time have not enjoyed positions of power may naturally be more inclined to speak up. But at the same time, I’ve always been quite an outspoken person.

FM: With all this seriousness, it seems like Harvard could use a good laugh. Do you have a favorite joke you’d like to tell?
JR: Oh no, I don’t have a joke. I just give humorous lectures.

FM: Are your students afraid you will issue no confidence votes against them?
JR: I would hate it if that were to be the case, and I sincerely hope that it really would not be. I try to keep university politics out of the classroom.

FM: In three words, describe the ideal president of Harvard.
JR: [Long pause.] I would say: visionary, broadly-educated—if I can count that as one word—and [pause] responsive.
FM: And three words to describe President Summers?
JR: Oh, that’s kind of mean.
FM: Fair enough. I’ll ask another mean one. What is most annoying about President Summers?
JR: I suppose it’s a certain impatience he has that’s most annoying. But I don’t think that’s at the heart of this matter right now. At the heart of the matter right now is his relatively narrow education which makes it hard for him to relate equally well to all the disciplines in the college and in the faculty.
FM: But even if his education is narrow, he—
JR: Well he’s a brilliant man. I’m not saying I’m the ideal person, either. I’m saying that we have at Harvard College an ideal of a broad education that encompasses many different areas, and I think if one speaks to President Summers at length about some areas he’s not familiar with, he shows that he hasn’t really had the same kind of liberal arts education as we are trying to provide you people.

FM: You must enjoy seeing your name in the big papers?
JR: Oh, it’s also scary, you know. You can be misquoted. Luckily, I haven’t been misquoted. It’s certainly been a huge incursion on my time. People phoning me, e-mailing me, my Wi-Fi breaking down at home over the weekend. All those things were an incursion into my time. So no, I don’t have that particular desire to be famous. I’d rather keep teaching and writing.

FM: Is it tiring being the Weary Professor of German and Comparative Literature?
JR: It’s exceedingly tiring. In fact, when I was first given that title, I thought it must be a joke. But the first question I asked was, “Is there any special way to pronounce ‘Weary?’ Is it perhaps pronounced ‘Way-AR-ee?’” I was trying to get out from under that name, but I think the dean at that time proposed me for that position because he knew I could take a joke.
FM: Have other professors ever asked for your title?
JR: Oh no, that would be the least desirable title to have. Please note that Professor Engell is the Gurney Professor. That’s just a more severe case of incapacitation.

FM: How has all the Summers stuff affected your relationship with your colleagues and the other members of the Faculty?
JR: Well, I’ve received an enormous amount of support. Of course I do have colleagues who are quite close to me who are on the other side. One of the very nice things is how very nicely they treat me. Everybody has been very civil. There are no people going around the corridors shooting dirty looks at each other or anything. In fact, I teach in the same classroom right after one of the supporters of President Summers [Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature Ruth R. Wisse] and we get along very well. Obviously we will speak on opposite sides of the issue.

FM: Who are Summers’s main supporters in the Faculty, along with Professor Wisse?
JR: Well, certainly Professor Mansfield. I don’t know really who else. There are other people, but at the moment what was strange was that at the meeting on Tuesday, those people weren’t present. Maybe it was just too early in the semester, coping with shopping period—that may have been what it was. In any case, nobody got up to defend him at that meeting. But I’m sure there will be supporters of him at the February 28 meeting.
FM: Your hopes and expectations for that meeting?
JR: I just want to see how it comes out. I’m curious.