Fifteen Questions with Richard Bradley

What now? Harvard critic, blogger, and journalist on life after Summers’ resignation

Last week I interviewed Weary Professor of German and Comparative Literature Judith L. Ryan, who had just placed a new “no confidence” motion on the docket for this Tuesday’s Faculty meeting. Ryan seemed to like my questions, but one notable naysayer’s criticism echoed through cyberspace. Richard Bradley, author of the bestselling “Harvard Rules,” wrote on his blog: “the Crimson really needs to be more careful about showing its biases. Is the faculty ‘drunk with power’ or is Sam Teller just drunk?”

One week and one resignation later, I called up said critic to ask him 15 impromptu questions about the education blogosphere and the no-longer-so-big man on campus.

1. Fifteen Minutes: So, are you happy about Summers’s resignation? Sad? Excited?

Richard Bradley: I’m relieved, I guess, because I think that this change is going to be good for Harvard. The situation was getting so ugly, it was painful to watch. As fascinating as it has been to write about, it’s like watching the proverbial car crash. You can’t stop looking, but it’s pretty horrific all the same.

2. FM: What’s your stake in the whole controversy?

RB: In a way, it’s the real ending of my book, I suppose. Had I known this was going to happen a year after my book was going to be published, maybe I would have stretched it out a little longer. That aside, I do have a genuine respect for the institution and dislike seeing the place torn apart. That’s not good for anyone. Well, that’s not true, it’s good for the media. It’s been good for [former Crimson Managing Editor] Zach[ary M. Seward ‘07-’09].

3. FM: What’s the traffic been like on your blog during the past couple days?

RB: I don’t count the numbers, but there have been more comments than ever before. With Harvard folks, I get the feeling that most of them were reading the blog before, but it didn’t necessarily mean they wanted to participate. Now there are comments from people who clearly know a lot more than I do about what’s going on. There’s some very well-informed and seemingly high level commentary on the blog.

4. FM: What were your reactions to the way the story broke on the web, by student blogs, the Crimson, the Journal, your blog?

RB: I got some phone calls around 11 p.m. from people who had heard the rumor that [the Crimson was] going to report that Summers was resigning. They didn’t know about the Journal piece—they heard about you guys. I think it shows the amount of interest in this story. I was a little surprised that it didn’t happen over the weekend. Larry has a habit of burying bad news—not that you could bury this bad news—so I was surprised that it wasn’t a Friday 5 p.m. kind of thing.

5. FM: Have you ever met President Summers?

RB: I’ve met him three times. In his meetings he has said a total of zero words to me. Honestly, he’s grunted. He’s looked uncomfortable and walked away. They were awkward meetings. Other than that, he never granted me an interview. I met him at Harvard in London in spring 2003, I met him before a talk he gave at the Harvard Club in New York—he and I happened to be wandering down the same corridor—and at Commencement in 2004. Also, I only call him Larry for shorthand, not because we’re on a first name basis.

6. FM: Without being disrespectful myself, do you think calling him Larry shows a lack of respect for a man that you might disagree with but still is in a position of power and deserves some respect?

RB: No, I don’t think so. I’ve had hundreds of conversations with people around campus about Summers and everyone calls him Larry. It becomes habitual.

7. FM: Once Summers leaves, what are you going to blog about?

RB: I’m actually going scuba diving next week in Mexico. He and I are going on vacation at the same time. This blog was actually not intended primarily to be about Harvard. It was intended to be about politics and media with the occasional dollop of Harvard news. But I found the story still interested me. It’s a fascinating story—it’s historic, it’s dramatic. I’m not sure it quite reaches the level of tragic, but there are tragic elements in it. Above all—and this will get lost in the left versus right sniping you’ll see in the next few weeks—it’s an important story. Ultimately a lot of the issues with Larry were about personality. At the same time, the underlying argument was about what kind of place a university ought to be. Not just any university, but the university I’ve argued is the most important in the world. I don’t think that conversation is going to end. President Bok, whom I haven’t had enough conversations about to refer to as Derek, will come in again as a conciliatory figure as he did in ’71. He’s not going to be the guy who maps out the agenda, because that would be unfair to whoever takes over. So, in another year, this discussion will happen all over again. Hopefully, this time it will be a healthier, more inclusive conversation than it has been for the past five years.

8. FM: I know this isn’t about me, but hey, let’s talk about me. You criticized my “confrontational” questioning of Judith Ryan. Don’t you think that, like [New York Times Magazine reporter] Deborah Solomon, an interviewer should try to ask tough questions of an interviewee? How else are you supposed to get interesting answers?

RB: I’m not a real close reader of Deborah Solomon because I find the New York Times Magazine so dull. There are times when I’ve found it’s just shock value for her. It’s like high concept entertainment. In some ways, the most neutral questions will prompt the most honest answers. I don’t think it’s good journalism to get people to say something because they feel awkward, make a gaffe, and that becomes news.

9. FM: Again, I don’t mean to be disrespectful to you, but wasn’t it insulting for you to insinuate that Professor Ryan, a tenured Harvard professor, would be put in an unfair position by tough questions on a topic on which she is more than qualified to speak?

RB: I do get frustrated by—and I’m not referring to you—caricatures of the Faculty, which are ubiquitous. They’re something the Faculty should be concerned about. There’s an odd willingness to believe that the faculty consists of knee-jerk left-wing Sixties-holdover radical crackpots. It’s obviously an unfair caricature of the Faculty.

10. FM: But there have been unfair caricatures of Summers. I feel like those have been much more prevalent—cartoons and exaggerations of his women in science comments.

RB: I think that’s true too. With “women in science,” there were real gross simplifications about what Summers said. That’s a process that happens when someone makes a gaffe in a certain way and it becomes set in stone. I have on occasion pointed out instances where I felt Summers was getting a wrong deal. But Summers also until today had a media apparatus to help him deal with this. There’s no kind of equivalent for the Faculty. And I guess also those caricatures of Summers are about one individual. The caricatures of the Faculty are about anti-intellectualism in the U.S. The problem with a knee-jerk hostility to intellectuals in a university is a more important problem.

11. FM: But the flipside is that caricatures of a group are diffused and nothing sticks with an individual member of the group in the future.

RB: Nancy Hopkins [the MIT professor whose outrage over Summers’s women in science comments triggered the initial uproar last year] was referred to in a recent article as a “harpie.”

12. FM: But she’s not Harvard Faculty.

RB: She’s an intellectual.

13. FM: You know how in dating, like in high school and college, a lot of people are just about the chase? Like you’ll really like a girl while she’s mean to you, and then as soon as she likes you, you lose interest? Is it going to be the same thing with the Faculty, like they loved the witch hunt, the chase, the controversy more than they actually care about his resignation itself?

RB: Let me answer that this way: I think it’d be a shame if the Faculty, which is often not very involved in larger questions about Harvard’s direction, checked out again just because Lawrence Summers is gone. You’d like to think that this painful period could be followed by a time of constructive engagement in which the Faculty displays as much energy towards getting Harvard restarted as it did in voicing their dislike of Larry Summers. But I’m hardly the person to tell the Faculty what to do. They don’t need me for that. That’s what Larry Summers was for.

14. FM: In typical fashion, let’s end on a lighter note. Are you any good at science and math?

RB: Terrible. I’m a disaster. I fulfill every stereotype about writers.

15. FM: Look, I apologize, but I’m drunk right now. How does that make you feel?

RB: [Laugh.] Jealous.

[Note: Richard Bradley received an A.M. from Harvard in 1991.]