Cantabs can benefit from Yale’s example

“For once, Yale has it right,” the Harvard Crimson asserted yesterday in characteristically smarmy fashion. It was referring to quotes from Yale President Richard Levin, who offered sympathy for departing Harvard President Larry Summers and the Cantab community. But we believe the Summers debacle, and the very nature of Levin’s comments, serve as proof that Yale had the right idea all along.

To be fair, the Crimson and other sources laid out a good case for Summers’ progressive ideals. Summers spearheaded financial aid reform, put forward an urban redevelopment plan and, with grants for new student spaces and a pub, took up the daunting task of making Harvard fun. But Summers’ most worthy project seems to have been his undoing: He fought to improve undergraduate education.

The faculty that forced Summers to resign reacted most strongly to his proposed move toward a system of academic distribution requirements and his push to expand freshman seminar programs. Though his explicit prioritization of certain departments over others rankled some, it seems obvious to us that Summers’ demands for faculty to become more involved in undergraduate teaching were responsible in no small part for his the furor that prompted his resignation. We believe that to be a shame.

Though we take issue with Summers’ infamous personal opinions, we admire his conviction on these academic fronts. When Harvard completed a curricular review in 2004, Summers wrote the final report. He has been more of a hands-on president than Levin and consistently focused on undergraduates, teaching freshman seminars and hosting the occasional study break. We just wish he had taken a cue from fellow economist Levin on the merits of politicking.

Where Summers was a one-man reform campaign, Levin remained a man of the faculty, if not necessarily a man of the people. Levin’s ability to build faculty consensus — through negotiating skills and canny use of sainted figures such as former Dean Richard Brodhead — informs his high standing among the faculty, to whom he has at least outwardly relinquished many academic policy decisions. But he has been far from idle, using political capital to steer financial aid and globalization initiatives similar to those Summers advocated at Harvard. Complaints about Levin center on his being too hands-off — with ongoing labor relations concerns, for example. He has remained neutral on most controversial issues, including those related to Summers.

Levin has done much to guide Yale into the 21st century. Of course, he may have had an easier time of it than Summers, who until this week was fighting to bring Harvard academics into the 20th. While Harvard financial aid policies are marginally more generous, Yale adopted the modern version of its distribution requirements 30 years ago, and the Dean’s Office is working to expand our own freshman seminar program.

With an eye to reform, we wish the best of luck to whomever fills Larry Summers’ shoes. Harvard is already losing ground to Yale in undergraduate admissions, and this scandal — which turns on the faculty’s vehement refusal to reassess its undergraduate teaching — isn’t going to help. But we encourage the next Harvard president to seek a greater balance of vision with the practical realities of the post; otherwise, Summers’ laudable vision will never become reality.