When Lawrence Summers was first interviewed for Harvard’s presidency, he made it clear to the search committee that he wouldn’t be your typical college president. He’d spend less time fund-raising and more time enhancing academic scholarship. He’d reach out to undergraduates. He’d question the status quo and implement bold new reforms. He’d use his bully pulpit to speak out on national issues, regardless of their relevance to higher education.
Obviously, the search committee was impressed by his passion and stunning credentials. After all, he was a world-renowned economist and former secretary of the treasury. So what if this was his first stint as a college administrator? So what if his brash, confrontational style might collide with faculty egos? Summers was bright and visionary, and his upfront attitude would usher in a refreshing contrast to outgoing president Neil Rudenstine, who’d often been criticized as bland and detached. The search committee cast aside their concerns and picked the brilliant but brazen Summers as Harvard’s 27th president.
Optimistically, Summers’ tenure could be called atypical. Realistically, it has been a disaster. When Yalies head north this weekend, let’s take a moment to appreciate the search committee’s devastating decision.
Summers has consistently offended key constituents of the Harvard student body. He outraged gay Cantabs by calling for the reinstatement of ROTC, which is banned because of the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. This fall, he alienated supporters of Palestine by naively branding the national “divest from Israel” campaign anti-Semitic. To add insult to injury, he then expressed outrage when Harvard’s English department invited a pro-Palestinian Irish poet for a guest lecture.
But students come and go. Professors are permanent fixtures. And Summers’ record with Harvard’s powerful faculty has been dismal, to say the least.
His campaign to tenure young professors has elicited resistance not only from individual professors, but from entire departments, especially those where scholarship potential is difficult to measure. His abrasive debating style has yet to catch on in faculty meetings.
Indeed, to understand the problems he’ll continue to have with his peers, look no further than his well-publicized tiff with Afro-American studies professor Cornel West. Last spring, he infuriated Harvard’s black community by insulting West, then failing to mend fences. West and fellow big shot K. Anthony Appiah both departed to Princeton last year. Henry Louis Gates Jr., the architect of Harvard’s once-renowned Afro-American Studies Department, will unveil his future plans this December. According to the Harvard Crimson, his departure is a definite possibility.
In his first year, Summers has displayed a great deal of courage. And his willingness to confront controversy and speak out on national issues are commendable. But common sense dictates that you pick your battles and avoid angering your core constituents in your first year on the job.
Indeed, Summers could learn a thing or two from our own President Richard Levin. While Levin could use a little charisma, his administrative and fund-raising expertise rivals that of any college head. Under his tutelage, the University has built a solid corps of respectable administrators who’ve overseen one of the most prosperous eras in Yale history. Residential colleges and university infrastructure are being renovated at a breathtaking pace. The endowment has skyrocketed. Town-gown relations are at a historic high.
And yet, many forget that Levin inherited one of the most troubled presidencies in recent Yale history.
Rewind to 1994, two years into Levin’s presidency. That was the year when GQ magazine published “The Death of Yale”, an unflattering account of all that was wrong with Boolaland. It recounted the University’s bulging deficit, crumbling facilities and unruly faculty, not to mention its faltering graduate schools and plummeting U.S. News and World Report rankings.
And it provided a blistering portrayal of the man who’d brought Yale to its demise: Benno Schmidt, Levin’s predecessor. The article called him “the least popular figure in the history of the University.”
The similarities between Schmidt and Summers are striking. Both replaced leaders who were criticized as being too genial and laid-back. The mild leadership of A. Bartlett Giamatti, Yale’s president prior to Schmidt, had led him to being bulldozed by some of Yale’s most punishing labor strikes.
Both Schmidt and Summers have groomed their managerial skills outside the ivory tower. While Schmidt had served as dean of Columbia Law School, he’d spent much of his career climbing the corporate ladder at the Manhattan venture capital firm J.H. Whitney and Company.
And most importantly, both Schmidt and Summers are averse to consensus decision-making. Both are very bright, and both have distinguished themselves outside academia. But universities are an entirely different beast from private companies and government agencies — namely because faculties wield an inordinate amount of power. Alumni and student bodies can also inhibit top-down leadership. Combined, these powerful checks to presidential authority make it very difficult for heavy-handed managers to last long as college presidents.
Schmidt took six years to bring his university to the brink of collapse. Let’s see how long it takes Summers.
Sahm Adrangi is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column appears regularly on alternate Wednesdays.