Harvard's Loss

Summers’ vision of a worldly university should serve as model for Harvard’s next chief

For once, Yale has it right. Upon hearing the news of University President Lawrence H. Summers’ resignation, Yale President Richard Levin remarked, “I’m sorry for him, and I’m sorry for Harvard.” As are we.

Whatever satisfaction was today enjoyed by the elements of unrest in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), it is unrepresentative of the sobering sense of emptiness that now pervades Cambridge’s streets. Harvard’s loss is real.

For all the controversy, all the brusqueness, all the je ne sais quoi that made Summers offensive, for all the faults that Summers brought with him to Mass. Hall, Summers also brought a vision. More than that, he brought the ability to articulate that vision and the willingness to struggle passionately for it.

And we agree with that vision.

As all of his statements yesterday attest, Summers wants to be remembered as a president who was committed to improving the undergraduate experience. As his record demonstrates, he deserves such a legacy. Summers has been a forceful advocate of revamping an outdated undergraduate curriculum. To this date, Harvard lags unacceptably behind rival undergraduate institutions in providing a sensible general education program to its students.

If at times overzealous, the fervor with which Summers approached the Harvard College Curricular Review (HCCR) was a refreshing departure from years of stagnation. Some have accused him of overexerting his influence in the writing of the April 2004 report, but it is difficult to argue with its ultimate conclusions: the conversion of the Core Curriculum to an open system of distribution requirements, the development of broad foundational courses, and the facilitation of international study.

Moreover, Summers has worked to expand one of the most successful aspects of the College curriculum: the Freshman Seminar Program. The number of freshman seminars offered has more than quadrupled in his time here, notably in the sciences, where few seminars of any sort had previously been offered. That Summers’ commitment to undergraduate education extended beyond the committee room and into the classroom, where he taught two freshman seminars and a lecture course on globalization, stands as a testament to the authenticity of his conviction.

Under Summers’ leadership, the University established the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative, which substantially reduced tuition costs for low-income students and broadened the College’s applicant pool. Finally, it was a grant from the President’s office this past fall that will finally begin to address the problems facing social space in undergraduate life—it earmarked millions of dollars for a pub in Loker Commons, a café in Lamont, and a plethora of student group space in the Hilles Building.

More importantly, the seeds sown for improvement in the undergraduate experience under Summers’ presidency are indicative of his larger willingness to press for change at an institution by nature resistant to it.

Summers unforgivingly, and often publicly, made known his prioritization of certain academic initiatives over others. Given the occasion to address a crowd, Summers rarely failed to mention his belief that this era would be defined by a revolution in the life sciences and by the quickening pace of globalization. His acting on these beliefs has led, for example, to the bolstering of the Broad Institute, the planning of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, and the establishment of the Harvard Initiative for Global Health and a Chilean office of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies. It was his brazen trumpeting of these priorities that increased his popularity with students and with a public uninterested in the more esoteric aspects of academia.

Through these and other initiatives, Summers hoped to fashion Harvard into a university that more directly served his conception of the public good. To this end, he has emphasized (and correspondingly obtained funding for) increased research in the life sciences and in expanding Harvard’s global footprint.

It is the prerogative of and, more, the duty of a university president to shift a university’s focus when the demands of the era require it. After all, Harvard, like most other schools founded in colonial days, was established primarily as a training institute for clergy. Reform has come only in battles against the wishes of the entrenched interests of the time. Harvard’s greatest leaps of progress have come when its presidents have fought to modernize the University and redefine its role in accordance with the progressive goals of their respective eras.

Ultimately, too many of today’s entrenched interests felt threatened—justified or not—by Summers’ vision, or by the manner in which he sought to bring his vision to fruition. That was his ultimate undoing.

We are not blind to the tumult that defined much of Summers’ tenure. The list of indictments is not short. A public spat with former Fletcher University Professor Cornel R. West ’74 led to the departure of one of the dynamos of the African and African American Studies department. Then came Summers’ remarks linking proponents of a divestment movement from Israel with anti-Semitism “in their effect, if not their intent”; this accusation alienated professors who felt Summers was effectively squelching debate.

Last spring, Summers made now-notorious comments suggesting that differences in intrinsic aptitude between men and women might account for the under-representation of women in positions of academic science. This incident catalyzed a series of Faculty meetings that culminated in an unprecedented vote of “lack of confidence.” More recently, Summers drew the Faculty’s ire for his dismissal of Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby and for lingering allegations of misconduct in his handling of a government lawsuit, implicating Jones Professor of Economics Andrei Shleifer ’82, that cost the University $26.5 million.

Indeed, the charges are not few, and they are compounded by more widespread frustration with Summers’ heavy-handed and sometimes opaque management style. Worse yet are murmurs suggesting Summers had been less than truthful in meetings with individual Faculty members. Larry Summers was not without flaws. Some would say he had an inexplicable propensity for demonstrating his flaws all too often.

But in most of these instances, Summers can only be faulted for being too much a public intellectual and too little a politically aware university president—a fault of excess, perhaps, but not a fault that should have cost Summers his job. Too often, he was viewed under a microscope by a Faculty which appeared to look for, if not outright hope for, Summers, and his vision for accelerated change, to fail.

Yesterday, when Summers stepped out of his Mass. Hall office to personally address the public for the first time regarding his resignation, he was greeted by a crowd of undergraduates. A reluctant Summers—not knowing whether he was about to be lauded or lambasted—gingerly approached one student and shook his hand, then a second; soon dozens joined the fray of admiration. Students believe in Summers’ vision.

Though Summers only resigned only yesterday, his loss, in some sense, has been more gradual. His initiatives, by and large, have been in a rut for the greater part of the last year. It has become increasingly apparent over the last week that Summers’ departure was inevitable. Whether it was a conspicuous lack of support from the Harvard Corporation amidst the latest Faculty flurry or, more likely, a worn president, his vigor faded, no longer willing to defend himself against the barbs of an uncompromising segment of the Faculty, Summers could no longer effectively make progress on his plans, and Harvard, now rudderless, was doomed to absorb his loss.

In the end, Summers had a worthy vision but was unable to make that vision a reality. The former treasury secretary will soon be a president emeritus, and his seat at the center of the academic world will expire in four short months. We hope that the Corporation will appoint an able successor with the overflowing ambition that defined Summers’ brief presidency and has opened Harvard to the prospect of tremendous—and perhaps even unprecedented—progress.