Summers' Backers Worry He May Leave

Pinker: President should defend himself—or “let’s just get a namby-pamby”

“No nation, no matter how strong, can stand alone in the world without friends and without allies,” Lawrence H. Summers told the Chicago Economic Club in October 2003.

Could the same be said of a University president?

At the most vulnerable juncture of his half-decade at Harvard’s helm, Summers now faces a fuming Faculty with few vocal supporters by his side.

And many of his longtime allies are expressing disaffection with what they see as the president’s ineffective leadership.

“If he’s going to be like every other college president—just a caretaker, fundraiser, and a mouther of platitudes—then why do we need someone who’s also going to offend people?” said psychologist Steven Pinker, who was one of Summers’ most prominent supporters last year.

“If all he’s going to do is roll over and let the Faculty do business as usual,” Pinker continued, “then let’s just get a namby-pamby like all the other university presidents.”

In the meantime, the six people who hold the key to Summers’ fate have stayed mum in the midst of the crisis. Last year, the Harvard Corporation, the governing board with exclusive power to fire the president, released two statements in support of Summers.

But on Wednesday, Corporation member James F. Rothenberg ’68, the University treasurer, declined to say whether the board still has confidence in the president.

“I can’t comment on that,” Rothenberg said, during an interview about a $50 million fund for Harvard faculty that he helped develop. “When the Corporation wants to communicate with The Crimson about that topic, it will.”

With the Corporation still silent, Summers’ supporters fear that the president’s critics on the Faculty might be successful in unseating him this time around.

Professor of Economics Edward L. Glaeser, another prominent Summers backer, said, “I lose sleep over this—that is a true fact.”

He said that the anti-Summers camp is “very strong” and “very dedicated.”

“I’m not in any sense impugning their motives,” Glaeser said. “On some intellectual level, I certainly believe that they’re wrong. But I have enormous respect for them as people.”

“And when you have so many smart people rail against you who are so committed, you’ve got to be worried,” Glaeser said.

‘NOT MAKING ANYONE HAPPY’

Summers’ problem, as many of his supporters see it, is that he has tried, unsuccessfully, to appease his critics—and in doing so, alienated his proponents.

“I think the problem now is he’s not making anyone happy,” said Pinker, the Johnstone Family professor of psychology. “He’s made his critics think he’s weak, and made it a little harder for his supporters to find anything to support.”

Pinker’s comments were striking because the psychologist had been so outspoken in his support of Summers during the thick of last winter’s women-in-science storm. In a late January 2005 interview with The New York Times, for example, Pinker hailed Summers as a “refreshing” change from past presidents.

But asked on Wednesday whether he still had confidence in Summers, Pinker hesitated, then qualified his response.

“Yeah, but—I’d like to see a little more positive leadership,” Pinker said.

Another well-known Summers supporter, Kenan Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield ’53, also said he wanted the president to respond forcefully to his opponents.

“He needs to start defending himself,” Mansfield said, “and to answer and refute his miserable critics.”

Summers now faces the daunting task of galvanizing his backers without further antagonizing his foes.

Professor of Public Service David R. Gergen, who advised four U.S. presidents and also counseled Summers during last year’s crisis, said, “My sense is that there are significant reservoirs of support for him around the University.”

“What I don’t know is how well they will come together in coming days,” Gergen said.

Glaeser likewise expressed doubts about the solidarity of the pro-Summers camp. “There are less people who are in a very strong, emotional, ready-to-fight-for-Summers place, and that’s a bit of a cost of moving hard to placate your opponents,” Glaeser said.

Summers, of course, would be hard-pressed to listen to his supporters and reassert forceful control over the University without angering his detractors even more.

“If he would go that route, I think he’d have an even more rebellious faculty on his hands,” according to James T. Kloppenberg, the Kemper professor of American history.

Finding a middle ground might now be the president’s ultimate challenge-—an impossible one, say some professors from both camps.

“I don’t think that there is a conciliation option right now,” Glaeser said.

SILENCE AT THE TOP

With the Faculty and the president at an apparent stalemate, Summers’ supporters this week echoed some of his critics in saying that only the silent and secretive Corporation could defuse the current crisis.

Last spring, the Corporation released two statements affirming its confidence in Summers—one on the day the president released the transcript of his remarks on women in science, and a second statement just hours after the Faculty voted a lack of confidence in him last March 14.

The Corporation has yet to make any sort of statement regarding this month’s firestorm. But Glaeser said the board must go beyond issuing press releases.

“What I’m actually looking for is Mr. Houghton to actually attend a Faculty meeting and make it clear what the rules are going forward,” Glaeser said, referring to James R. Houghton ’58, the Corporation’s senior fellow.

“Because, clearly, the University is not entirely well,” Glaeser continued. “It clearly needs a degree of institutional support that, I think, Summers on his own doesn’t have.”

And Pinker, while saying he wasn’t sure if the Corporation should take any public steps, said he hoped the board would, at least, intervene privately with the president.

“I would like them to give some guidance to Summers and to say, ‘Things aren’t going well. You’ve got to either bring back some leadership and make sure that trains run on time and start new initiatives that you originally wanted to bring—or else get out of the way,’” Pinker said.

Mansfield, too, said an intervention by the Corporation is the only way out of the crisis—but that Summers must speak up, as well.

“For him to stay in office, the Corporation needs to stand behind him,” Mansfield said. “I think they should do so in chorus with President Summers himself.”

‘RULE BY THE MOB’

Many of the president’s backers said they were surprised by the strength of anti-Summers sentiment at the Feb. 7 Faculty meeting—which may explain why so many of his strongest supporters were absent from the session.

“I mean, this was like someone having a heart attack,” said Lee Professor of Economics Claudia Goldin. “This was not like the patient had diabetes and we knew there was a problem.”

Allison Professor of Economics Lawrence F. Katz, like Goldin and others, called on the president’s critics to lay out their specific concerns.

“People are somewhat befuddled and bewildered by the current responses,” Katz said.

During last year’s crisis, Goldin said, people had “real gripes”—“I would talk to them and try to understand it.”

Those gripes, Goldin said, included specific incidents involving Summers and Faculty members. For instance, “‘I met him at this thing and he didn’t say hello.’ Or, ‘he didn’t shake my hand,’ or, ‘his underwear was showing,’” she recounted.

But Goldin said she didn’t understand the cause of the current crisis because she saw professors blaming Summers for the problems of outgoing Dean William C. Kirby’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS).

Asked what she thought of the “paralysis” of the Faculty that some professors cited at last week’s meeting, Goldin replied: “A paralysis of what, of FAS? That’s the dean’s fault, not Larry’s fault.”

“This is rule by the mob,” she added.

That “mob” might not reign at all of Harvard’s schools, though.

Alan M. Dershowitz—the Frankfurter professor of law who went on ABC’s “Nightline” last year to defend Summers—noted, like many of the president’s supporters, that FAS is just a part of Summers’ constituency.

“I think he has very widespread support around the Law School,” Dershowitz said. “I think a lot of people at the Law School think of Arts and Sciences as unrepresentative of the faculty of Harvard University in general.”

Dershowitz, who is among those who view the fight over Summers’ presidency as one about intellectual freedom, said he will teach a course at the Law School next year inspired by Summers’ tenure.

It will be called “Taboo.”

—Javier C. Hernandez contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer Anton S. Troianovski can be reached at atroian@fas.harvard.edu.