In recent days, there has been a great deal of speculation about the possible identity of Harvard’s next president. From articles in the New York Times to pieces found in the pages of this very newspaper, educated guessing appears to be the game of the day.
The Times, apparently having decided to cast subtlety to the wind, recently asked, "Could Harvard be preparing to select a woman as its new president? A scientist? A female scientist?" With this reference to the fondly remembered "intrinsic aptitude" debacle, the Times has offered a perfect example of what the press really seems to be interested in when discussing Harvard’s presidential search: not who is selected or why, but how that selection can be best spun to look like it was all about former University President Lawrence H. Summers.
If a woman is selected, especially a woman who happens to be a scientist, then it will be a politically-correct attempt to pacify those who saw Summers and his thoughts on "innate differences" as a representation of the unapologetic Old Boy’s Club mentality that supposedly pervades the campus. If a black president is selected, it would only be in retaliation for Summers’ running Cornel West out of town and setting in motion the steady exodus of many of the remaining big names from our African and African American Studies department. Should our next president have a clear affinity for the humanities, the selection will have been made for no other reason than to smooth the ruffled feathers of professors in an area that Summers seemed less than enthusiastic about. No need to continue—you get the idea.
Thanks to the insatiable desire of the American media to create controversy where there is none, or—more appropriately, in this case—drag a year-old controversy, kicking and screaming, into a year in which it should be water under the bridge, Harvard’s presidential search is irrevocably tainted. The specter of President Summers’ perceived shortcomings and his ouster will likely have far-reaching consequences once the president is selected, and beyond.
Harvard’s next president, whoever the poor sap turns out to be, should come in prepared to have his or her own accomplishments, leadership style, ideas, and overall individuality monumentally overshadowed from the first day in office. The public, after having been so expertly conditioned by the media, will likely be interested in little else than whether or not the new president is the "Anti-Summers," "Summers Reincarnated," or some as-yet-undiscovered middle ground—which will, of course, still have something to do with Summers. Beyond this being pretty sad for the individual, the University as a whole will be seriously impacted as well.
Already, there are people itching to confirm their view of Harvard as a bastion of politically correct liberalism run amok, if only the presidential search committee would give them the ammunition. On the other end, however, are those who are convinced that Harvard is nothing more than a conservative and self-perpetuating society of rich old white men, who need nothing more than the selection of the 28th white male Harvard president to vindicate them. With people on both sides waiting with bated breath for our university to make a grave misstep in either direction, we find ourselves in a textbook case of "damned if you do, damned if you don’t." No matter who is selected, the selection will be viewed as reactionary rather than a reflection of the merits of the individual chosen, and will thus reflect negatively on Harvard in one way or another.
Short of simply not selecting a president at all, it would seem that there is little that can be done to combat the unfortunate focus that the public perception of Harvard’s presidential search has taken. As long as the activities of the presidential search committee are shrouded in secrecy, after all, they don’t leave much for us little people to do except make things up until we know the whom and, more importantly, the why, of their decision. Even if they were to make public their entire decision process, it is unlikely that anyone would believe that the next president of Harvard was chosen based on merit alone. That simply wouldn’t be interesting enough.
And so, it seems, the House of Harvard must remain inescapably haunted by the Ghost of Summers, with no hope of exorcism in sight.
Ashton R. Lattimore ’08 is an English concentrator in Dunster House. Her column appears regularly.
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