Summers of Our Discontent

Today was supposed to be judgment day for University President Lawrence H. Summers. But rather than subject himself to the possibility of a second annual vote of “no confidence” from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard’s embattled president decided instead to avoid another round of public humiliation by relinquishing his cherished throne.

Predictably, Summers’ resignation has inspired an avalanche of misinformed editorials, sensationalist radio and television punditry, anti-intellectual caricatures of the Faculty, and acrimonious debate—on campus and far outside of it. Widespread Faculty discontent has been likened to a “purge,” a “lynching,” and a “coup d’etat.” In some circles, Summers has been crowned a “martyr,” the victim of rampant “political correctness” among a faculty comprised of left-wing nut-jobs. Those who defend Summers often speak in the language of apocalypse, as if Harvard will not survive without Larry Summers at the helm.

Of course, all of this is hogwash. Having attended Harvard as an undergraduate, and having taught here for six years, I can attest that the Faculty is in no way a festering cauldron of left-wing lunatics. Overall, its members are a diverse and impressive group of hard-working scholars, variously committed to teaching and public life, open-minded and broadly tolerant, but generally quite slow to voice their dissent on most matters. In other words, they are politically liberal but temperamentally quite moderate. Much like the undergraduates they teach, they are more interested in professional success than in social justice. They hardly constitute a threat to Harvard or to civilization.

For those of us who earn our bread at Harvard—in other words, those of us who are in a position to distinguish between the reality of this complex situation and the knee-jerk hysteria that surrounds it—it is hard to interpret the post-resignation public defenses of Summers as anything but angry, reactionary pessimism. Indeed, we should remember that “political correctness” was a concept invented by conservatives to malign progressive attempts to democratize and diversify the academy and to make higher education more hospitable to a broader range of people and ideas. Those who characterize Summers as an undeserving victim of “political correctness” fail to apprehend the real significance of his truncated tenure.

This entire ordeal—Summers’ presidency and the embarrassing controversies that plagued it from the beginning—boil down to two fundamental problems: style and ethics. Everyone knows that Larry Summers was brought to Harvard to “shake things up.” For better and for worse, he has done that. His penchant for brash, inflammatory, and often vulgar statements is legendary. Indeed, it is difficult to find a faculty member at Harvard who doesn’t have a “Larry story”: an account of some unpleasant encounter with the president, in which he was unnecessarily hostile or dismissive, alienating or offending someone (or everyone) in the room. As with the departure of former Fletcher University Professor Cornel R. West ’74, these are often private meetings, wherein Summers can act as unprofessionally as possible without the threat of public record or recourse. Whether asserting his belief that economists are smarter than other social scientists, or routinely disparaging members of faculty, Summers’ arrogance often got in the way of his brilliance.

But this is not simply an issue of style. As the recent multi-million-dollar Russian reform fraud scandal involving his close friend and fellow economist Jones Professor of Economics Andrei Shleifer ’82 illustrates, Summers also has an ethics problem. This is perhaps most starkly evident in the way that he worked to maintain a fortress of secrecy around him while employing Washington-style political tactics as a way to embarrass or humiliate colleagues. In Summers’ inner circle, economics is about power rather than principle. And this debilitating corporate worldview—where market values are more important than moral values—constitutes the real threat to Harvard’s reputation and standing.

Viewed in this light, Faculty discontent over Summers’ leadership is perfectly justified. What surprises me is the widespread student discontent over his resignation. In talking to my students over the course of the last week, I have come to realize that they still have many questions—good ones—about the various forces that led to Summers’ resignation. Where faculty members see a tyrant dismissive of their work and opinions, students see a leader who seems genuinely interested in their lives. When professors recoil at the sight of Larry Summers signing dollar bills, undergraduates clamor for more autographs. To faculty, Summers is an arrogant power-broker; to students, he is an accessible celebrity. After all, this is a man who visits the Houses, dances to hip hop at first-year social events, and fools around on the sidelines of home football games. More substantively, he has launched a long overdue review of the undergraduate curriculum, taught popular courses each year, implemented a far-reaching financial aid initiative, and expanded study abroad opportunities. In many ways, Summers is their president. I have to remind myself that most current Harvard undergraduates are too young to even remember Cornel West. If there is one lesson to be learned from all of this, it’s that faculty and students perceive Summers very differently because they have fundamentally different relationships to him within the structure of the University.

Summers’ resignation thus poses an important challenge. As faculty members, we must articulate clearly and persuasively the reasons for our own discontent with the president. Moreover, we must take student grievances seriously by engaging undergraduates in conversation—publicly and privately—in an effort to restore their confidence in us as educators who are fully committed to Harvard’s long-term health. We must demonstrate our desire to work closely with students to reform the undergraduate curriculum, and we must devote ourselves more assiduously than ever to good teaching and advising. Together, we must work to make Harvard the institution it can and should be—a place of higher learning where critical debate coincides with mutual respect, where moral values triumph over market values, and where transparency replaces secrecy. We have a better chance of accomplishing all of this now that Larry Summers is gone.

Timothy Patrick McCarthy ’93 is Lecturer on History and Literature and on Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality. He is Secretary of the Harvard-Radcliffe Class of 1993 and a past director of the Harvard Alumni Association.