Summers and the Students

One of the worst things about University President Lawrence H. Summers’ resignation is the message that it seems to signal to Harvard’s students, both past and present. Summers stood for many things, but most importantly he represented the interests of our students.

In a formal sense, he participated in the curriculum, teaching a freshman seminar and co-teaching a large lecture course. But this teaching role just begins to touch the core reasons that students supported Summers: he was passionately interested in their ideas and their experiences. He didn’t listen politely and then move on to the next student in line. Instead, he argued with students about every conceivable topic, from curricular reform to the ethics of stem cell research to the war in Iraq. Summers showed up at undergraduate events, and he meaningfully talked with students. He asked tough questions and then listened to thoughtful answers. He forced students into real conversations, short on platitudes and long on substance. Occasionally the students forced him onto the dance floor.

These personal connections were not a public relations stunt. Summers put his budget and his administration on the line. He challenged faculty to dramatically increase the quality of a Harvard education. From the moment he arrived, Summers understood the embarrassing fact that Harvard is great because we admit great students, not because we give them a great faculty-led education. Of course, the students know this too, explaining why Harvard students rate their educational experience less positively than the students at almost all of our peer institutions. Summers led the charge to revamp the curriculum and improve the quality of undergraduate life. He wanted to hold faculty accountable for their teaching. Some faculty faulted him for playing too central a role in the curricular review, and some faculty resented being told (fairly or unfairly) that they weren’t living up to Summers’ standards. Whatever the case, most students felt that Summers had their interests at heart and was working intensely to make Harvard better for them.

Summers also cared about making Harvard accessible and attractive to students from all socioeconomic backgrounds. Under his leadership, the College adopted a new financial aid policy that guaranteed that parents with less than $40,000 of income will not have to pay anything to send their children to Harvard. Students from middle income families also benefited from Summers’ policies, though there is still much to be done on the issue of financial aid and access.

In his final pre-resignation week, the students’ perspective was clearly expressed in a Crimson poll designed in consultation with three faculty experts. Only 19 percent of surveyed undergraduates said that Summers should resign, while 57 percent said he should not. A poll of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences would have likely yielded the opposite result. The day of his resignation, students demonstrated outside of Mass. Hall to show their support for Summers.

Even as we lose the messenger, let’s rededicate ourselves to this message: educational excellence must be a core value of Harvard. This does not mean that every professor needs to be a great teacher. But it does mean that every student should receive a great education. Summers consistently delivered that critical message. Our next President should too.

David I. Laibson ’88 is Professor of Economics.