2.21.2006

A sad day for Harvard

Larry Summers has resigned his position as President of Harvard University.

Personally, I'm very disappointed that the clash between Summers and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences came to this end. Summers had a clear vision for where he wanted to take the University in the 21st century, and he had accomplished many tasks towards this vision:


  • In partnership with MIT, Harvard helped establish the Broad Institute, a new research lab devoted to the application of genomics in medicine.
  • Harvard has established a new lab for stem cell research.
  • Harvard has made it easier for students from poorer families (household income less than $60,000) to attend the College by reducing or doing away with the expected household contributions to tuition and directly inspired a certain university in New Haven to do the same.
  • Summers has expressed to improving the education and overall experience that the College offers. What is surprising is how much Summers himself has directly contributed to this end: he teaches a freshman seminar on issues of globalization, and gives guest lectures and makes appearances at all sorts of campus events.


Alas, for all of Summers' positive accomplishments, he's gotten into a number of dustups with FAS, some small, some bigger:


  • He got into a famous dustup with former University Professor Cornel West over the quality of West's scholarship and some of West's extracurricular pursuits, like recording a spoken-word CD and campaigning for Al Sharpton. West left for Princeton not too long after. Summers probably could have handled that better, if West's account of the private conversation is accurate. To his credit, Summers has refused to give his account of the conversation.
  • He denied tenure to hip-hop scholar Marcyliena Morgan, who had been unanimously approved by her colleagues in the African-American Studies department. Shortly afterward, she and her husband, tenured sociologist Lawrence Bobo, took tenured positions at Stanford. Regardless of the actual merits of Morgan's work, Summers upset a lot of people in the Af-Am department (and possibly elsewhere) with this decision, and he clearly underestimated Morgan's value on the open market.
  • It's clear that Summers believes that basic research in quantitatively-driven disciplines is central to Harvard's success in the future. On the flip side, he's made intemperate private remarks about his estimation of some of the other humanities disciplines to former GSAS dean Peter Ellison.
  • In the aftermath of 9/11 and some of the leftist commentary about the attacks, he proclaimed that Harvard needed to return to patriotic values. Summers, who is Jewish, also said that the whole divestment from Israel campaign was "anti-Semitic in effect, if not in intent". He's entitled to air his views on these matters, of course (and I think he was right), but he probably could have done so using language that wouldn't have immediately upset large numbers of the faculty.
  • He fired Dean of Harvard College Harry Lewis and consolidated the offices of the Dean of the College and the Dean of Undergraduate Education into one office, and handled it rather poorly, I think. It's understandable (even if one disagrees with it) that Summers would want to restructure the administration in this manner in order to emphasize undergraduate education over extracurriculars, but Lewis deserved better.
  • Summers's handling of the forced resignation of former Dean of FAS Bill Kirby was even worse, if he indeed was responsible for leaking the news to the Crimson. The faculty had demanded a much bigger role in the selection of the new dean.
  • Plenty of professors have complained that Summers goes over the heads of the faculty in floating various proposals and has ruled by creating a "climate of fear". Sometimes they cite the incidents above. Other times the complaints are more nebulous, although they may be revealed more concretely now that Summers is out.


It's clear that Larry Summers has stepped on a lot of toes (sometimes intentionally, sometimes inadvertently) during his presidency. It's really too bad that he never mastered the art of picking his battles, as he was really committed to advancing scientific research at Harvard, making faculty more accessible to students and reforming the undergraduate experience at the College. The end of Summers's presidency is a real loss for Harvard.

UPDATE: This opinion piece from Slate is well worth reading.

4 comments:

jackdeuce said...

no mention of his comments on women and mathematics?

Edward Lee said...

By now, I don't think many of the faculty hold it as a major gripe against him, especially after he apologized so obsequiously for it. I could be wrong, but the hysteria surrounding that remark was so ridiculous that I refuse to call further attention to it.

andrew said...

Perhaps he just tried to do to much. By overstepping the power that he had, he ticked too many people off, which lead to his demise. But I really don't know as I don't follow that university very much. I think of Harvard as being a place that doesn't rock the boat.

Andrew said...

After reading the slate article, I have even more respect for Summers. Unfortantly, due to his attachment to science, he didn't have a vision of where Harvard fit in the culture wars.