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The most positive outcome of the past few weeks may be the Faculty’s increased willingness to speak out on issues that have long troubled many of them. But its flipside is the dangerous likelihood that this crisis of governance will distract from the underlying issues—unintentionally aiding University President Lawrence H. Summers’ attempts to bring Washington politics to an institution that needs anything but.
Summers’ top-down management style—regularly making requests of departments without using Harvard’s reporting structure, and keeping Faculty as distant from Allston planning as possible—suggests that he views Harvard less like an institution of higher learning and more like a Fortune 500 company (or perhaps a cabinet-level department). Summers might boast that his methods cut through red tape; indeed, he compared Harvard to a Ford factory in explaining to classmates at my freshman barbecue why the matter of a living wage was for administrators alone to debate. But academic inquiry requires a tenure and governance system that involves Faculty in decision-making, so that decisions that affect Harvard’s academic fate (say, what buildings go on a new campus) are welcomed by those who actually teach.
Summers’ entire worldview is colored by the notion that economics is the only way to make decisions, which led to his problematic remarks on women in academia. As he shared the stage with former vice president Albert A. Gore ’69 a few months ago discussing the environment, Summers terrifyingly suggested that the University should study an environmental issue because of its “comparative advantage” in related fields. But a university should never justify what it studies on economic terms instead of intellectual principles.
Universities cannot be governed by statistics. Though attrition would be problematic for any business, a university’s success in attracting people is not measurable in percentages: for it takes no more than the case study of former University professors Cornel R. West ’74 and K. Anthony Appiah to show that a single Faculty member’s departure or single declined tenure offer can dilapidate an entire department or, worse, the development of an intellectual idea. The petitions circulated by Summers’ supporters suggest that Summers requires no more than a simple majority approval rating; fit, perhaps, for certain U.S. presidents to claim a mandate, but hardly a basis for inspiring a divided professors and student body.
It is worrisome when faculty must head to the press with concerns that are really not political but intellectual, about no less than the nature of university governance and diversity. Those professors who have rallied to Summers’ side have quickly tried to make it a political debate, using the weary charge of “political correctness” and conventionally political tactics like petitions and—as I suspect will be shown by this afternoon’s meeting—“get out the vote” drives. If this conversation takes place on such political terms, Summers will have won by default—bringing Washington politics to a university that has thus far resisted them. In short, with Harvard in the media spotlight, unusual power has fallen to those who never liked the notion of a university—who have long argued that the professorship is a cushy position that involves no work (as Summers implicitly did in challenging Cornel West a few years ago).
Now that the Corporation has given unconditional support for Summers, it is unlikely that any professor or staff member will feel comfortable approaching them with the kind of information that is most important right now—examples of intimidation, bully tactics, stifling of debate. In the tight-lipped, public relations-dominated environment Summers has installed in Mass. Hall (he is the first president to have a personal press officer), how can the Corporation know what is going on? Of course, the Corporation would do well to consider his ability to fundraise in the current climate. Summers’ top agenda items, such as the Allston campus, rely on convincing donors of Harvard’s continued relevance—difficult when the president’s management style is questioned daily on The New York Times’ front page, and when the Princeton University president offers her school as an “Ellis Island” for fleeing scientists.
For undergraduates, the fact that this debate takes place in the midst of a curricular review could make the situation catastrophic. And there is a second, related failure of leadership at the decanal level; Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby has remained mum throughout the debate, showing a lack of independence and strength—in stark contrast to his predecessor, Jeremy R. Knowles, under whose leadership one could hardly imagine a normally civil faculty so divided.
As a consequence, the issues of the curricular review are being submerged: last Tuesday’s Faculty meeting, in fact, was supposed to discuss the much-neglected review. If the review continues to be associated with Summers, whose fingerprints are all over its agenda, the current climate may prohibit serious discussion about the nature of undergraduate education. A successful curricular review should not just restructure course requirements; it should reinvigorate professors and students to the fundamental missions of a liberal arts institution. This one has accomplished anything but inspiration—just as Summers’ past comments about African-American studies and women in science have accomplished the opposite of encouraging academic exploration.
In his first address to my class shortly after his appointment, Summers presciently said that “Isaiah Berlin remarked that governments fall because of ideas developed by a professor in the quiet of his study.” He should have taken this advice more seriously, further developing his ideas about diversity before removing them from the quiet of his study under the un-academic mantle of provocation, with “evidence” based on his daughters’ experiences with toy trucks and with phrases like “I’m not an expert in this area but a lot of people in the room are.” Berlin’s words have additional resonance as professors hold up the magnifying glass to Summers’ “government” by carefully honing in on the intellectual issues his leadership poses to running a top-notch university.
In that same address, Summers likened himself to a fellow freshman, a member of the Class of 2005. Since then, each time he’s made one of his “gaffes”—if you even believe they can be written off as mere gaffes—he’s chalked it up to his learning curve. But it’s been almost four years since he gave that speech, and I’m about to graduate. Does Summers deserve a ninth semester?
J. Hale Russell ’05, a former Crimson executive, is an English concentrator in Adams House.
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