When former Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers took over the presidency of Harvard last March, he brought with him a seemingly revolutionary approach to the office. In just under 10 months on the job, he has campaigned for a return of the previously banned ROTC to Harvard, crusaded against grade inflation, argued for tenuring younger professors, and urged support for the war on terrorism — a far cry from the bureaucratic insularity that has come to characterize many university presidents today.
While the spotlight was centered in on Summers in Cambridge, Yale President Richard Levin also stepped before a bully pulpit, commendably calling on his colleagues to abandon the intrusive and discriminatory practice of early-decision admissions in the Ivy League.
The reversal Summers and Levin appear to have navigated is welcome, though far from revolutionary. A few decades ago, it was not uncommon for university presidents to offer opinions about, and indeed exert influence on, national policy. Kingman Brewster, Yale’s president in the 1960s and ’70s, not only publicly denounced the Vietnam War and the injustices associated with it, but he also opened the University to women in 1969.
But in recent years, the Brewsters of academia have been few and far between, and the days when university presidents’ comments were worthy of the front page of The New York Times seemed all but gone. Demands to stimulate alumni giving or update infrastructure seemed to have trumped the desire of presidents to comment on national issues like they once did.
Summers and Levin have done well to change that. The leaders of universities like Harvard and Yale, by virtue of their positions, are granted much respect and admiration in American public life. They have a right, and in many ways a responsibility, to use the power and prestige of the university to advance what they see as noble causes.
They should also not underestimate the influence their actions have on the lives of students, who regard their leaders as examples both personally and politically. For presidents to say their universities are committed to developing the future’s public servants and leaders is good, but to actually play such a role in the present does far more than mere words ever could.
Of course, as Summers and Levin have both shown, stepping behind the bully pulpit is not without its costs. Summers’ actions have annoyed gay activists opposed to ROTC, irked older professors clamoring for tenure, and, most recently, sparked explosive anger from almost the entire Harvard Afro-American Studies Department. And Levin had much work to do restoring Yale’s financial stability and repairing its physical structures before he could responsibly turn to national issues.
We hope Summers and Levin’s recent actions will catalyze a return to the new, old role of university presidents as strong ideological and moral forces, both in the lives of students and on the national political scene.
Given the traumatic events of the last year and the important questions we face in this new one, we need them now more than ever.