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Staff Dissent: Mobbing Summers

A misguided faculty needs to find its bearings

By Michael B. Broukhim, Adam M. Guren, and Hannah E. S. wright

The mild embarrassment brought upon Harvard by University President Lawrence H. Summers’ apolitical remarks regarding women in the sciences has just been trumped. We turn to Tuesday’s Faculty meeting in its place. Slighting norms of civility, certain opportunistic members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences have decided to rile the mob and convene the kangaroo court to put Summers—already downtrodden from his unjust beating by the media over the past month—on the hot seat.

When Summers was named to the presidency, it was in the hope that he would be a more active and visible president who would steer the university in a dramatically new direction. While he may be stubborn, and facing him down is no one’s favorite task, it is precisely his drive, determination, and persistent commitment to a greater vision that makes him a good leader. His tenure has led to widespread positive changes including the new financial aid initiative, a complete rethink of undergraduate education, and a plan for expansion into Allston.

He has, at times, pursued these noble goals with an undiplomatic lack of tact, especially given that he speaks with the name of this university behind him. And in the case of his recent remarks on women, he may have negatively impacted two of Harvard’s major strengths—its image and its ability to attract top academics.

But these remarks, while regrettable in their consequence, are not really the issue here. Instead, the Faculty’s anger is rooted in a long-held frustration with Summers’ perceived less than ideal transparency and powerful—and at times overwhelming—leadership style that has been bubbling under the surface for three and a half years.

It seems that for all their accused liberal political leanings, the faculty shows a strong conservative streak when it comes to change at home. When combined with over 350 years of tradition and devoted and nostalgic alumni, this creates a tremendous amount of inertia that works against the progressive changes that Summers is trying to implement.

This is not to say that Summers is always right. The Faculty should be included in decision-making that will affect them, just as students should be consulted. But both of these groups must recognize that they prioritize different goals and time frames than a university president, who is supposed to be acting in the long-term interests of the entire institution.

We are sympathetic to their plight—open debate and discussion with some of the most brilliant and distinguished people in the world can only be a good thing. If the Faculty wants to challenge Summers on his leadership style, they unquestionably have the right to do so. But to kick him while he’s down and use the public vulnerability the incident created to help themselves out is, to be honest, deplorable.

The Faculty meeting was not an impromptu eruption of tensions, but a planned show trial. Rumors and anonymous comments about possible motions to dismiss Summers from the meeting do not spread on their own, and New York Times reporters do not show up at University Hall because they want to see John Harvard. The media should not be a tool to further an agenda on university governance.

Still more disturbing are the sensationalist calls for a vote of no confidence and resignation. Given Summers’ apparent support from the Harvard Corporation, he clearly isn’t going anywhere. Surely a collection of the most brilliant academics in the world should be able to avoid the temptation to flaunt their credentials in a petty power-trip. Surely they realize that the best course of action for the overall well-being of the University is measured cooperation.

But any loyalty to a higher cause seems to have been lost in a rumble of power dynamics and showmanship. We can’t shake the depressing suspicion that the Faculty knows better, but seems keen on leveraging the threat of “no confidence” when they sit down at the bargaining table.

If the solution to addressing grievances is waiting for a national media frenzy to break Summers down before the Faculty is willing to speak, productive discussions will be few and far between.

With job security rivaling that of Supreme Court Justices, tenured professors should have had ample opportunity for considerate criticism of University administration without turning the Faculty Room into Harvard Stadium.

If the goal is to debate increasing their involvement in the decision-making processes of this university in a reasonable manner, the Faculty shouldn’t limit itself to the extremes—resignation or revolution—it can’t reduce the esteemed University Hall attendees to an intellectual lynch mob, and it certainly shouldn’t seek out spectacle by advertising its intentions well in advance. Tuesday was not an emotional reaction; it was well-executed plan, and as such it is inexcusable.

Fortunately next Tuesday’s emergency meeting offers the opportunity for faculty members to take the first steps down a new, more respectable path—one worthy of their esteemed positions, and one that can spare the University senseless embarrassment.

Michael B. Broukhim ’07 and Hannah E. S. Wright ’06 are associate editorial chairs. Adam M. Guren ’08 is an editorial editor.

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