News Analysis: With Book on Horizon, Summers Sharpens His Critiques of Harvard and its Faculty

CLARIFICATION APPENDED

SOMERVILLE—Believe it or not, Lawrence H. Summers is only beginning to say what he really thinks.

Unbridled by the delicate politics of Harvard’s presidency, Summers has sharpened his criticism of the University and its professors. Looming on the horizon is a planned book on undergraduate education that may crystallize his views.

Summers recently secured the Wylie Agency in New York to shop the still-unwritten work to publishers. In a lecture last night at Tufts University, he offered what could be a preview of more scathing critiques to come.

Summers assailed the faculty’s commitment to teaching and bemoaned what he described as their resistance to change. He took issue with the protections of tenure and appeared to call for a mandatory retirement age.

These were themes often associated with Summers’ five-year tenure at the University, but he had never articulated them so clearly and with such force.

“When university faculties are unwilling to take a stand on what constitutes the undergraduate experience for students, on what, if anything, somebody needs to function in today’s world, they license a position that all ideas are equally valid,” he said.

That comment, Summers acknowledged in an interview after the speech, was a reference to Harvard’s undergraduate curricular review, launched in 2002, which became one of many flashpoints in his relationship with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS). After several stumbles, the review is only now nearing completion.

Asked for his response to the final report on general education released by an FAS committee last month, Summers said, “I would have liked a somewhat better defined sense of what the crucial issues were that students needed to grapple with, and I would have welcomed a deeper commitment to faculty-student contact.”

Pedagogy was a key theme of Summers’ speech last night. He said that while other universities constantly attempt to poach accomplished researchers from Harvard, “I can’t recall a single case when an effort was made to raid Harvard for a candidate who was an outstanding teacher.”

Summers also referred to Henry Rosovsky, former dean of the Faculty, who commented in 1984 that the teaching effort of Harvard professors had declined by half in the prior four decades.

“My guess is that it may have happened again,” Summers said.

He bluntly criticized the effects of tenure, noting that at Harvard “a pretty high fraction of the teachers are the same teachers who were there a generation ago” and cautioning against “the combination of tenure and a lack of mandatory retirement.”

Summers assailed the tenure-review process, proposing a presumably hypothetical scenario in a possibly hypothetical department: “There’s someone who might be the next Immanuel Kant but is a little bit difficult. And the philosophy department decides that they would rather make their lives easier than have the next Immanuel Kant. Who reviews that decision? No one.”

Summers stopped short of calling for an end to tenure but decried the lack of administrative power over professors. With exasperation in his voice, he said, “Here’s a proposal far less radical than the abolition of tenure but which would be regarded as radical at America’s leading universities: Every five years, every professor should have a discussion with their dean about what they’ve done over the past five years and what they propose for the next five years. But that is regarded as a radical proposal that is threatening to tenure.”

Harvard’s presidents have long sighed at the entrenched fiefdoms—academic departments, certain deans, senior faculty members—that hold sway in times of change at the University. Those complaints are most acute when it comes to undergraduate education.

Derek C. Bok, in his first turn as president, likened the 1978 curricular review to “moving a cemetery.” His most recent book, “Our Underachieving Colleges,” assails the “self-interested behavior” of professors as the most significant barrier to reform in higher education.

There is also a long Harvard tradition of deposed administrators taking up the role of pesky gadfly.

Former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 is, of course, the most notable example. His book last year, “Excellence Without a Soul,” so fiercely attacked the proposed general-education requirements that the task force’s final report was obliged to note his “forceful (and, we hope, premature) critique.”

But Summers’ book, if and when it arrives, will raise the stakes considerably. It is likely to generate far greater interest than the typical academic treatise on account of his celebrity and, well, reputation.

And if anyone forgot what exactly that reputation is, Tufts President Lawrence S. Bacow made sure to remind the audience last night. In a brief, largely biographical introduction, he nonetheless found time to describe Summers as “outspoken,” “provocative,” “interesting,” “lively,” “willing to challenge conventional wisdom,” and “maybe even sometimes controversial.”

—Staff writer Zachary M. Seward can be reached at seward@fas.harvard.

Clarification: The March 15 news analysis "With Book on Horizon, Summers Sharpens His Critiques of Harvard and its Faculty" did not completely represent the former University president's views on the undergraduate curricular review. He also said in an interview after the speech, "Much of it reflects things that were my focus during my presidency," and praised half a dozen initiatives, including faculty-student contact, the empirical reasoning requirement, the attention to pedagogy, secondary concentrations, and the emphasis on actual knowledge rather than ways of knowing.