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School’s Out for Summers

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For the university’s victorious left, it felt good, at a time of Republican hegemony, to succeed in at least getting rid of Harvard’s conservative president. But Summers is not a right-winger—not even a Republican. The ideological struggle at Harvard was an intramural fight between wings of the Democratic Party. Summers entered politics through the Dukakis campaign. As an official in Clinton’s Treasury Department, he got into trouble for candidly and correctly saying that “when it comes to [repealing] the estate tax, there is no case other than selfishness,” and he has admitted that the Clinton administration egregiously caved to Big Pharma in opposing generic aids drugs.

It was not, finally, any of his particular Harvard controversies that forced him out. They were more like opportunistic infections than the root causes of Summers’s terminal condition. And the supposed final straw—pushing out Harvard’s nice, conciliatory dean of the faculty—seems more like an excuse than an urgent cri de coeur. Maybe Summers did mishandle the federal case involving his pal Andrei Shleifer, an economics professor who engaged in cronyism and self-dealing as a U.S. government consultant in Russia in the nineties. But those issues mainly provided cover, respectable reasons to doubt Summers.

No, Larry Summers lost his job because—to use the HR terms of art—he was a change agent whose skill sets did not include active listening and consensus-building. A successful president of Harvard, like the leader of almost any large institution, especially nonprofits, must lead not so much by command and control, like CEOs and generals in bad fiction, but with paternal, kingly nudges and strokes and crafty manipulations, by making the various tenured lords of all the various fiefdoms believe in one’s authority to lead—what one friend of mine, a longtime Harvard faculty spouse, calls the Tinkerbell Effect. That means, for instance, not publicly telling faculty members that their questions are “stupid,” as Summers did.

He was, my Harvard-savant friend says, like “the schoolteacher you had who couldn’t ever maintain control of the class. The trouble starts with the usual malcontents, spitballs in the back of the classroom. He tried hectoring, then appeasing, but whatever he did, he just didn’t have it. And then it spreads, and by the time you’ve got even the good girls passing notes, you’ve gone beyond the point of no return.” No university president has tenured faculty by the balls, and so their hearts and minds don’t follow—and besides, Summers seemed attuned only to winning minds, not hearts.

His former Treasury Department boss, Bob Rubin, a member of Harvard’s board, once admiringly remarked on his lack of “academic naïveté.” But it turns out that Summers’s tragic flaw—his belief that a job title by itself conferred power, and that a great university would welcome any disquieting idea expressed in good faith—was simply a different flavor of academic naïveté.

His case reminds me somewhat of another recent, short-term steward of another elite, gold-standard institution. Like Summers, Howell Raines started his job, at the Times, in the summer of 2001. Both are very smart, and both let you know it. From the get-go, both loudly accused their institutions of complacency, and both have a pugnacious alpha-male manner that could terrify fainter-hearted colleagues. And both thus quickly generated a critical mass of ill will among key constituencies. Although the Jayson Blair disaster was the proximate reason for Raines’s sacking, his two years of gruff, tough arrogance were what did him in. If either of Summers’s extremely politic predecessors had committed comparable rhetorical blunders, they surely would have moved on, and survived. And just as Raines’s well-liked predecessor Joe Lelyveld was rushed in as the interim replacement at the Times, Harvard’s well-liked former president Derek Bok will take over for Summers while the university searches for a permanent replacement.

Who might that be? Apparently not, alas, the brilliant Bob Rubin, since it was he who convinced his fellow board members to hire Summers, and he’s now 67 besides. One plausible early short list includes Steve Hyman, a distinguished neurobiologist who’s Harvard’s current provost, and Amy Gutmann, a distinguished political scientist who is the newish president of Penn.

In any case, I hope the university doesn’t learn the wrong lessons from the Summers experience, picking some milquetoasty anti-Summers, the way we elected Jimmy Carter in overreaction to Richard Nixon—“a namby-pamby like all the other university presidents,” in the words of Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker, “a caretaker, fund-raiser, and a mouther of platitudes.”

Yes, a president of Harvard obviously requires CEO competence, collegiality, a deft public style, and (mock) humility. But in fact, she or he needs to be a new, improved version of Larry Summers: someone whose large-heartedness is more obvious and tough-mindedness less so, who will make more exemplary grand gestures like eliminating tuition for students from the economic lower half, someone truth-telling and passionate enough to use the job as a bully pulpit. How many of our political leaders these days have the ability to challenge and inspire us in surprising, useful ways? The right next president of Harvard could. Although that may be naïve of me.

E-mail: emailandersen@aol.com.


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