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« More, More, More on Summers | Main | Taking "The Gates" Seriously »

February 21, 2005

More, More on Summers

Fenster Moop writes:

Dear Blowhards,

I know some of you must be getting tired of the Larry Summers imbroglio.


To me, though, the story is just getting interesting. It's just at the point of morphing from an interesting, faintly humorous, metaphor/curiosity into a story of some real heft and consequence. It's seemingly no longer about Larry Summers and some angry academics at a conference--it threatens to become a much larger story about the Harvard faculty and the perception of higher education by a wider public.

That's because tomorrow night the Harvard faculty will meet and there is a possibility it will vote no confidence in Summer's leadership. That may or may not happen. It's not clear from published reports whether the matter will be placed on the agenda. And if it is on the agenda, it may be defeated. And even if it is passed, the game is not over since the President, formally speaking, serves at the pleasure of the Corporation, not the faculty. And the Corporation seems behind him, for the moment.

But consider the consequences of a successful no confidence vote, followed, after suitable hand-wringing and political twists and turns, by a Summers' departure. It could well be very damaging to Harvard's reputation and to elite higher education generally.

No, no, you may argue, the no confidence vote will not be about Summers' gender comments but about his fundamental unsuitability for the presidency of Harvard, or of any college. And that, viewed in such a light, a faculty no confidence view can be viewed as appropriate, pure even.

True, it can be argued with some credibility that Summers is simply too arrogant, too high-handed, too top down for a college presidency. "Collegiality" can mean obsequiousness and flaccid leadership, but you can't run a great university as a dictator. But--even if the man is hard to like--has Summers' done actually done that, in terms of the actual substance of his presidential leadership?

This article suggests not. Summers as a personality seems to leave something to be desired. Indeed, he seems to come across a little like Jabba the Hutt.


Nonetheless, the article suggests that Summers actual actions do not warrant a no confidence vote--at least one brought for reasons other than political anger over his MIT comments and the departure of Cornel West. So my guess is that if the story continues on this highly negative trajectory, the faculty will have a lot of explaining to do in the court of public opinion, especially in an era not so dominated by elite organs of opinion.

It has become something of an open secret that elite education is not all that it is cracked up to be, but the power of the brand in an era of heightened class consciousness and rising wealth has effectively insulated the elites from market pressures. Lots of knowledgeable observers and college guides point out that equal or better undergradutate education can be had elsewhere, but in this world reputation is all, and the elites still have it.

But could something as big as the faculty driving Summers from office change that perception? After all, those who live by reputation die by it as well. It is a slipppery commodity that is easily taken for granted. The Harvard faculty cannot be expected to worry overly about the effect of one of their actions on the Harvard brand. But the faculty nonetheless has the power to effect the brand quite clearly in its hands. Let's see what it does.



UPDATE: Here's a WSJ article on the controversy. Best quote from Harvey Mansfield: ""He is being attacked for his strengths and not for his defects. The liberals of Harvard lost the election last November. They are taking it out on Larry Summers."

Runner-up: Summers' characterization of a recent faculty meeting at which he was pummeled as "searing". Any hotter and it would have been "searing, searing."

posted by Fenster at February 21, 2005


College Presidents are in charge of fundraising, PR, and keeping the football team out of jail. In rare cases they actually have something to do with education or scholarship, but that's usually when one of them brings a second-rank school into the first rank. I doubt that Harvard will be harmed much if the actual scholars on the faculty bounce the political front man. It happens pretty often.

I presume, without much evidence, that a lot of people had a lot of reasons for going after Summers already. If I am wrong on that, this is indeed a bizarre and rather troubling case.

I think the case has been overblown, but I do think that Summers' critics have a point.

Posted by: John Emerson on February 21, 2005 01:26 PM

The link forthcometh.

Posted by: Tatyana on February 21, 2005 04:07 PM

I do think that the critics of Summers' critics have a point - and probably children that might want to go to Harvard as well.

Posted by: Giles on February 21, 2005 10:39 PM

I'm willing to let the factor Giles mentions decide this -- parent/student choice. I have no idea which way the coin will flip. I could see talented young women, even not in math, getting pissed off though.

Posted by: John Emerson on February 22, 2005 12:16 AM

I have one scrap of evidence. Brad DeLong is a centrist and not completely on the anti-Summers bandwagon, but he has a daughter who's sharp in math (among other things) and he thinks in terms of how this will affect her. I don't think that Harvard is winning.

Brad often writes about the things he's doing to stimulate his kids. He works very hard at it and you know that they are going to be tremendously sharp. One M, one F.

Posted by: John Emerson on February 22, 2005 12:22 AM

I'm hoping the ultimate effect will be to knock the reps of Harvard (and, what the hell, of academia generally) down a notch or two. But academia's been becoming slowly less relevant anyway. I remember a conference I attended about five years back about education. The gist of much that was said was that more and more Americans are doing more and more of the learning via nontraditional channels -- on the job training, night schools, technical schools, commercial outfits, online stuff. I wonder how aware official academia is of this, and what they make of it.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 22, 2005 11:16 AM

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