Cataclysm usually makes for a teaching moment. Not so with the resignation of Larry Summers.
If I hadn’t witnessed it firsthand, I’d say Summers’ ouster had all the makings of one of those storylines in which implausible characters make the plot altogether fantastic and unredeemed.
The recent events are a scene lifted from Kafka, where an unthinking chimera called the Faculty of Arts and Sciences seizes upon wrongdoings that few outside the academy would conceive of as wrong and then tenaciously holds on, overseeing the two-year-long persecution of their boss for these well-publicized thought crimes and for a cornucopia of unenumerated slights against one too many egos.
It is also a realm where that besieged leader, a man thought to be unabashed, suddenly refuses to defend himself. Just as his supporters are itching for a fight where his absurd critics would be made to look, well, absurd, he inexplicably backs down. Everywhere he goes, he utters mealy-mouthed platitudes and apologizes for holding beliefs that elsewhere would not even ripple the waters.
Even this incessant groveling is to no avail. The promulgator of platitudes is brought down by a mob that is not willing to be satiated.
And it’s not just a mob, but a mob with the miserable staying power that tenure offers. Whoever succeeds Larry Summers, the Faculty will still be there.
Those dismayed by last week’s untimely coup can take solace in the fact that Harvard is more funhouse and less emblem of American society.
The resignation is an incident so preposterous, so exceptional that there are no big lessons to be gleaned. Rather, there are only circumspect, spurious lessons—lessons not in the sense that they are morals to live by, but in the sense that they gesture toward the University’s sacred cows, to which a president must pay unabated homage if he hopes to achieve anything.
The central lesson of this sordid story is that Harvard is a place of its own—a tender, delicate place where perceived offenses are clamored upon with professorial cattiness. It is not the efficient outside world, where open, honest talk is not only encouraged, but is essential because the greatest danger is that something will be left unsaid, not that something unpleasant will be uttered.
It is in this light that I offer this modest helping of eminently practical rules for the coming Harvard University President to obey. Follow these, successor to Summers, and you will live out a happy and unmolested presidency.
1) Never Antagonize the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
It does not matter whether you are right or wrong. It does not matter that you were merely trying to start a conversation that was long overdue. The University President does not start conversations; he fundraises and acquiesces, and he occasionally mouths self-affirming statements that make the Faculty of Arts and Sciences feel good about itself.
The University President does not question the Faculty’s commitment to undergraduate education. It does not matter that you were trying to reverse a pernicious trend where 50 percent of students receive A’s and A-’s; it does not matter that you were trying to make undergraduate education at Harvard visionary and comprehensive once more.
If you fight the Faculty, you will lose. You will not lose because you are wrong. You will lose because the legitimacy of the Faculty’s discontent does not matter so long as it is persistent and loud enough.
2) You Don’t Have Opinions.
Think the lack of women in the sciences might have more complex causes than ingrained societal oppression? Keep it to yourself.
Tempted to paraphrase the Pulitzer Prize-winning, but politically incorrect arguments of Jared Diamond in your remarks to a gathering of historians? Not in this University, you don’t.
Eager to see that untouchably cool Af-Am professor who calls everyone “Brother” return to academic research from his long foray into spoken word albums and Al Sharpton presidential bids? You’d best not even mention it. You’re probably a racist if you do.
Any offensive opinion, including those backed up by research, will be an albatross around your neck forever. If you must say anything—and you shouldn’t have to, because that’s what the Faculty is here for—it should be to show contrition to anyone who demands an apology.
3) Coddle the Right People.
Women, African-Americans, and other disadvantaged minority groups demand your special attention. You must never criticize their special departments.
Some professors have weaker constitutions than others, and you must therefore treat people differently. This difference consists in giving these minorities special deference, bigger budgets, and more face time.
You must actively promote diversity—that is, a diversity of physical appearances and genders, not of opinions. If you are not a visible cheerleader of diversity, you are a reactionary opponent of the concept. A good way of supporting diversity is by throwing extra flesh at the Faculty mob. Name your most adamant minority critics to deanships; create new deanships to boost diversity.
Look around the University for ideas you might implement to win a few bonus points, like the financing of an undergraduate women’s center. It does not matter whether these are good, bad or ill-conceived ideas; it matters only that they are pro-diversity.
Follow these rules, but chiefly remember to be quiet and deferential, and avoid speaking of your own “vision.” Everywhere people are bandying about the buzz word “reform,” but don’t be fooled: The Faculty of Arts and Sciences, your effectual boss, is profoundly satisfied with the status quo. So sit back, sign those fundraising letters, be personable (i.e. coddling) and try to look cool, hip, and progressive. You’ll be much happier and much more “effective” than Larry Summers ever could have been.
Travis R. Kavulla ’06-’07 is a history concentrator affiliated with Mather House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.