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Of Chair Legs and Tub Bottoms

Summers’ failures should not discourage attempts to further centralize the University

By Hannah E. S. wright

Long before the Harvard President’s Chair took up residence in the Fogg’s collection, it stood in the library where students at the then all-male institution maintained a convenient tradition: If an unsuspecting young woman touring campus sat down, her host had the right to a kiss.

It’s safe to say that Larry Summers has seen his share of surprises (though of a different sort) since his installation in October 2001, and as he takes the seat for a final time at Commencement this June, the question of its next occupant will likely still be hanging in the air.

Ironically, leading the University is much like sitting in the president’s chair. It’s a tad uncomfortable and remaining upright requires a constant balancing act. In the case of the furniture, a triangular seat means the entire framework of the back rests on a single back leg, making it easy to tip from side to side. By any measure, the University has far more legs (9 faculties, 13 schools, 52 budgets) but also a good deal more resting upon them.

For those not enrolled in Religion 1513: A History of Harvard and Its Presidents, let me summarize Professor Gomes’ theory on presidential selection: Presidents are often chosen to compensate for the failings of their predecessors. With complaints about Summers’ top-down style of leadership, it’s tempting to appoint a charming, hands-off president who will leave each of the University’s many divisions to develop on their own provided, so to speak, the chair’s still standing. It’s also a horrible idea.

Harvard has traditionally operated under this sort of decentralized mindset. Since its initial appearance in the early 1800s, the “every tub on it’s own bottom” mantra has been a mainstay of managerial philosophy, the catchphrase of a budgeting scheme in which each of the University’s multitude of sub-units independently applies for approval from the Corporation. Apparently, making each school, museum, and administration responsible for its own solvency encourages initiative and self-reliance.

The problem of course is that this system can be hugely inefficient. A McKinsey study in 2003 found that Harvard could save $15-30 million a year by combining purchasing power across sub-units—one particularly choice example: 25 different shades of crimson-colored stationary.

Like any economist, Summers found the situation unsatisfactory and began a host of reforms designed to centralize University management. He created a new vice-president of human relations to coordinate labor contracts, and reorganized the Office of Budget, Financial Planning, and Institutional Research to provide more support to budget applicants.

But a greater degree of senior level scrutiny has meant more questions. This isn’t such a high price to pay for the perennially poorer schools—more administrative support is a godsend for the graduate schools of education and design, but the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) has the highest endowment of any of the University’s schools. Perhaps that’s why they’ve griped the most about the increased oversight.

I have little tolerance for complaints about purely administrative centralization. The University’s schools, departments, and the like should be held accountable for their use of resources, and individual schools need administrative support for innovative new policies, like the recent financial aid initiative.

Academic concerns are another matter entirely. Though acknowledging the benefits to administrative centralization, many critics are troubled by Summers’ tendency to carry top-down management into what professors see as their domain. The first Harvard president to review the tenure process instead of rubber stamping recommendations, Summers has also been accused of forcing his vision onto the curricular review and using a seemingly endless string of resignations and appointments to gain greater control over academic decision-making.

To some, the distinction is simple: centralization is fine for administrative odds and ends, so long as the president’s office stays out of the educating business. Bureaucrats are really unprepared to make these sorts of decisions, and Summers never should have tried to dictate what counts as “acceptable” academic work (à la the Cornel West scandal). If the Corporation selects a new president who stays out of the academic fray, our problems will be gone.

But quarantining our problems won’t solve them; if Harvard is to grow, academics and administration cannot help but intersect. Increasing international opportunities, channeling more research funding into the sciences, and coordinating academic work across disciplines and schools requires exactly the support an intermediary administration provides. And then there’s Allston, the first University-wide project to be planned and budgeted as a single entity. Without a president who will continue to push forward on these sorts of initiatives—initiatives that cannot help but dictate academic priorities—Harvard will stagnate.

So where does that leave us? Administrators can be uninformed and inflexible, and faculties can be self-interested and shortsighted. I don’t want Summers writing the syllabi for new Harvard courses, but I don’t want Professor Judith Ryan allotting space in Allston either.

Let us hope that the Corporation selects a candidate who recognizes both the seat’s limitations and its possibilities, who doesn’t shy away from engaging the faculty, but takes care to choose only those battles that are critical to the future academic development of the University as a whole. Centralization does have a place at Harvard; the next president has a responsibility to prove it can work.



Hannah E.S. Wright ’06 is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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