A Saga Misconstrued by the Media

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Matthew S. Meisel

The recent resignation of University President Lawrence H. Summers has predictably generated waves across the country. Harvard is not just an elite university; it has a special place in American culture because of its history, its influential professors, and undoubtedly its marketing of the Harvard brand. So the fact that Summers’ ouster became fodder for talk radio and national newspapers’ editorial pages is not surprising. Yet as an undergraduate at this fine university (and perhaps an aspiring journalist), it was disappointing to see the current fracas oversimplified and grossly misconstrued. Too often, newspapers and pundits have stated that Summers’ downfall was due to an extreme faculty obsessed with the idea of political correctness. Summers’ comments on the differences in the “intrinsic aptitude” between men and women did little to help his relationship with certain members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. But to characterize this speech as the major cause of Summers’ resignation is inaccurate and all too typical of much of the major media’s coverage.

When word of the outrage at Summers’ comments last January on women in science made it onto the pages of the Boston Globe, the national media jumped at the chance to cover the conflict. It was perfect fodder for conservative commentators. Here was an example of an overly liberal faculty attacking some poor academic who dared to speak the truth. It didn’t matter that no one knew exactly what Summers said. The issue could be easily and, unfortunately, inaccurately framed as radical liberals versus straight-talking conservatives. Nuance had no place in this argument. At the time, for example, a major cable news network invited several Harvard students, including two former Crimson editorial chairs, to discuss the issue on-air. But as the actual discussion developed, the show’s producers were aghast to discover the complexities of the issue, and so it booted one of its female guests who tepidly supported Summers in an attempt to make the divisions clearer. When that failed, it scrapped the entire piece in favor of a report narrated by a reporter, thereby ensuring the issue was contextualized just the way the network wanted.

By the time Summers finally released, a month later, a transcript of his remarks, the major media no longer cared. Few bothered to notice that Summers’ comments actually were, as advertised, rather controversial: he had posited that innate differences between men and women were a larger factor in explaining the dearth of women in science than socialization and discrimination.

Nor did most of the media care that the women in science debate had merely provided the means by which the Faculty expressed its true grievances: Summers’ brusque and sometimes disrespectful management style. This actual source of tension had been building for years. In August 2003, just weeks before my first day at Harvard, the New York Times Magazine ran a cover story on Summers entitled “Harvard Radical.” Summers was only a couple years into his tenure, but already his management techniques were under attack. The article quoted one Harvard Law School professor as saying, “[Summers] doesn’t give a damn what anybody thinks.” In fact, worries about Summers’ abrasive nature had been a central concern of the Harvard Corporation when the body deliberated on presidential candidates, the Times reported.

But aside from this article, there was little mention of Summers’ rude nature outside of the pages of this paper. And when the women in science comments surfaced, few referenced Summers’ temperament as the major issue.

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that many major editorial pages have blamed Summers’ resignation chiefly on his women in science remarks. It is easier to speak on a topic some of the general public may remember than to educate people about the firing of a major dean or to talk about Summers’ close relationship with a economics professor found guilty of unethical business dealings. Yet the latter are the important factors that helped caused Summers’ ouster. And these issues become all the more important in understanding the legacy of Lawrence Summers. By casting Summers as the victim of political correctness, many journalists and pundits have mistakenly concluded that Harvard cannot be reformed and that other university presidents will be fearful of attempting to enact major changes.

The next president of Harvard can build on Summers’ successes and institute substantial changes if he or she learns from the mistakes Summers made in management style. A successful leader must know when to offer the carrot and when to use the stick. Summers only wielded a stick. If the next president of Harvard balances forcefulness with charm, Harvard will be able to transform itself so that it can remain the preeminent university.

Andrew B. English ’07, a Crimson associate editorial chair, is an economics concentrator in Cabot House.