This column was written by Dean Barnett.
It would be a grand understatement to call Lawrence H. Summers' stewardship of Harvard tumultuous. In his five-year tenure, Summers careened from one controversy to another. Oft-times Summers cut a sympathetic figure as he upended the sacred cows of political correctness that have become fixtures of the modern university. Other times, Summers' troubles resulted from personal skills that even his defenders concede didn't evidence much social dexterity.
The Summers reign came to a shockingly abrupt denouement yesterday when he submitted his resignation, effective at the end of the current academic year. When he leaves the president's office, Summers will resume the humble life of a tenured Harvard economics professor who has one of the most accomplished records of anyone in his field.
As for what is in store for Harvard, that remains to be seen.
Summers' troubles began shortly after he assumed his office. Acting far more like a modern CEO than a modern university president, Summers tried to run Harvard as a hands-on manager. This is the opposite tack taken by most university presidents, who are content to be their school's fundraiser-in-chief and public figurehead.
Instead, Summers declared that the Harvard faculty should be more involved with undergrads. He challenged the scholarship of some of his tenured faculty members, making a particular cause of celebrity professor Cornel West's sometimes untraditional pursuits. These attempts to supervise the faculty were often met with reactions ranging from disdain to hostility.
And then there were Summers' political stands. Summers belittled a campaign that urged divestment in Israel. Later, in the wake of 9/11, he urged that the university's denizens be more patriotic. He was edging closer and closer to the unforgivable.
So Summers already had a sizeable group of enemies by the time he stood before an academic conference and mused that a contributing factor to the under-representation of women in the hard sciences might perhaps be due to different intrinsic abilities between the sexes. The furor that followed wasn't really caused by these comments. As even his fiercest critics conceded at the time, it was merely "the straw that broke the camel's back."
The net result of that controversy was the faculty narrowly passing a no-confidence referendum on Summers' leadership. That was almost a year ago.
Summers waged a contrition campaign which lasted for almost a year. He repeatedly apologized for his comments and avoided any of the blunt utterances that had previously characterized his tenure. His name faded from the newspapers and when it did appear it was because Summers was doing something typical of university presidents, such as announcing a fund-raising coup — as he did when Saudi Prince Alwaleed bestowed $20 million on the university for its Department of Middle Eastern Studies. (Alwaleed had previously earned a measure of infamy shortly after 9/11 when New York mayor Rudy Giuliani rejected his $10 million gift to help rebuild New York because of offensive comments he had made regarding America's foreign policy and Israel.)
This campaign to save his job, however, was doomed from the start. Summers' detractors on the faculty were quite clear all along that there was no way their relationship with their president could be mended.
But he did succeed in agitating his supporters. Professor Ruth Wisse, perhaps Summers' most vocal champion, expressed dismay that he apologized for comments that were "unexceptional." Like many of Summers' supporters, Wisse had several occasions for disappointment as Summers scrambled to make amends with the faculty.
At some point it had to become apparent that having a faculty that loathed its president was untenable for Harvard. In a battle to the death between the faculty and the president, the president never had a chance.
Where does Harvard go from here? Professor Wisse is not sanguine about what Summers' abdication portends for the university. She suggests that the issues in dire need of addressing regard the faculty, not the outgoing president. As she notes, it is indeed a bizarre circumstance that the Harvard faculty, which was so vocal about its president's every putatively offensive utterance, has expressed no qualms about accepting Prince Alwaleed's largesse, nor any curiosity regarding how the Saudi prince's gift will be used.
And what of the student body? In a development that seems to have surprised virtually all Crimson observers, only 19 percent of Harvard undergrads thought Summers should resign.
This poll perhaps signifies the contradiction at the heart of the modern academy. Students think universities should focus on educating their charges. Undergrads know, however, that their famous professors are often far more interested in their scholarship than in teaching. Summers was probably popular amongst the undergraduates because they knew he was their champion.
Summers' resignation is a sign that, at least at Harvard, the professoriate will brook no dissent on their view of the university system.
By Dean Barnett