School’s Out for Summers

Illustration by C. Michael Frey

When I met the president of Harvard last July, and a fellow alumnus introduced me as a founder of Spy magazine, I witnessed both Larry Summers’s famously preternatural knack for factual recall and his taste for provocative plainspokenness. “Ah, Spy,” he said, “I remember that list you published”—four column inches seventeen years earlier—“of people who Judy Miller had slept with.”

My friend and I were more interested, however, in getting his take on his difficult winter and spring—that is, the contretemps he’d provoked over the question of whether men’s and women’s respective abilities in science might be partly innate. Summers told us that the whole affair had shown him that Harvard students were far more up for intellectual rough-and-tumble than the Harvard faculty, confident and sporting enough to bat around ideas that challenged received wisdom. He seemed chastened but not exactly contrite—glad to have his punishment (the faculty’s no-confidence vote) and penance (apologies, a new $50 million budget line intended to make Harvard female-friendlier) behind him. Harvard’s governing board was just about to give him a $17,000 raise. He had missed the bullet.

But it turned out the bullet was still ricocheting wildly. Just a week later, the one person of color on the Harvard board resigned over the salary increase and the president’s general insensitivity. And now Summers has finally got whacked: He will resign in June and take a year-long sabbatical, after which he can return as a university professor, rejoining the faculty that just purged him to teach in whichever departments he chooses. Fuck you, Larry —and hey, welcome back! Such are the politics of academia.

‘’I don’t think of leadership as a popularity contest,” Summers said two years into his presidency, but his boasts about his popularity among undergraduates were evidently accurate. On the eve of his resignation, a Harvard Crimson poll of students found that only 30 percent disapproved of him, and a mere 19 percent wanted him to resign. “I really never saw the big deal about his outspokenness,” a recent female graduate told me. “He certainly was rude at times, and a very bumbling public speaker, but he was refreshing.” Moreover, it seems as if much of the university faculty weren’t dead-set on his ouster either.

So why was he forced out after a scant five years? His last two predecessors served ten and twenty years, respectively, and the only Harvard president with a shorter tenure died on the job.

It wasn’t only, or maybe even mainly, his profoundly impolitic, pointedly un-lefty politics. Yes, he made enemies from the very beginning when, during a meeting with senior black faculty, he is said to have remarked that “the jury’s out” on the virtues of affirmative action. And he made many more enemies that first fall when he suggested to Afro-American Studies professor Cornel West that he lacked seriousness, and drove him to leave Harvard. “His attack on me was the wrong person, the wrong professor, and the wrong Negro,” Professor West said, later adding for good measure about Harvard’s first Jewish president: “Larry Summers strikes me as the Ariel Sharon of American higher education.” And his popularity in Cambridge kept sinking when he reportedly dated the hard-core Republican pundit Laura Ingraham; said that a silver lining of 9/11 was to “reignite our sense of patriotism” which is “a word … used too infrequently in communities such as this university community”; went out of his way to support the ROTC; and accused anti-Israeli activists of being de facto anti-Semites.

Then, after two years of relative calm, he saw fit to remind a conference of Native American scholars that “the vast majority” of 250 years of Indian genocide was the result of disease, an unintended consequence of the natives’ “assimilation”—tragic rather than evil. And a few months later he made his comments about gender-linked aptitude—the great big picnic-skunk at a conference called “Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce.”

Quite a run of troublemaking. But though Summers seemed weirdly unable or unwilling to moderate the volume control on his bullhorn, his major faux pas all tended to conform to Michael Kinsley’s definition of “gaffe”—i.e., “when a politician tells the truth.” Plenty of supporters of affirmative action harbor ambivalence about it; West, with a Website home page devoted mainly to promoting his rap CD (“It feels so good you hardly notice that it’s good for you”) is goofy; in academia, antipathy to Israel can get ugly; it was disease that decimated the Indians; and an unwillingness to consider that certain aptitudes might be biologically gender-linked amounts to a kind of religious taboo on open inquiry.

To the degree that it was his reflexive candor that made Summers radioactive and finally untenable in Cambridge, it’s a little disheartening to those of us who believe in maximum intellectual freedom—particularly during a week when the Danish cartoons remain unprintable, and Austria sent the pathetic British Holocaust denier to prison for three years.

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.


School’s Out for Summers