When Harvard University President Lawrence Summers set off a media firestorm last week for comments he made at an academic conference, he sounded less like a 21st-century university chief executive and more like an outspoken education leader from the past — when presidents earned reputations for their bully-pulpit opinions.

University presidents today are, in many cases, increasingly reluctant to confront contentious topics, preferring to work quietly behind the scenes raising money and lobbying for issues that directly affect their institutions. But Summers bucked this trend two weeks ago when he suggested that “innate differences” between men and women may account for the lack of females teaching math and science in universities. He apologized last week, saying he should have weighed his comments more carefully, but his controversial statement set off a week-long national media frenzy.

Professors at Harvard and other universities assailed Summers for his remarks and some alumni threatened to stop donating to the university. With Summers in the hot seat, Yale President Richard Levin refused to comment on his peer to the north.

Yale historian and professor emeritus Gaddis Smith — who has seen many university heads make similarly controversial comments — said he thinks Summers was naive if he believed his speech at the private academic conference would not reach the public and reflect poorly on Harvard.

“I think that anyone who accepts the presidency of a major university must accept that he or she cannot speak in public except by being identified as president of that university,” Smith said. “Nothing’s off the record when you’re speaking to a relatively diverse group.”

Some past Yale presidents are remembered for igniting national debate. Former Yale President Bartlett Giamatti gained notoriety for his 1981 welcoming address to freshmen, in which he attacked Christian fundamentalists, calling them “peddlers of coercion.”

Kingman Brewster, serving as the University’s president in the raucous 1960s and 1970s, garnered widespread attention and alienated conservative Yale alumni when he denounced the Vietnam War and took a liberal stance on civil rights issues. But Brewster had expected his comments to attract controversy, Smith said.

Levin said he thinks these famous statements made by Brewster and Giamatti are isolated incidents and do not suggest that presidents during their time were more intimately involved with national political issues than today’s educational leaders. While past university presidents tended to take public stances on a wide range of issues, today’s leaders in higher education narrow their focus to issues that speak directly to their institutions’ interests, Levin said.

“My own view is there is a lot of mythology associated with this,” Levin said. “If you look at what fraction of the time those individuals spent on national policy issues compared to current university presidents, I think it would be substantially less.”

In his 12 years as president, Levin has played a leading national role advocating several higher education issues. Last year, Levin began putting pressure on President Bush’s administration to reform the visa-granting process for foreign students. And two years ago, Levin sparked a nationwide debate on undergraduate early admissions programs, criticizing early decision and instituting a single-choice, non-binding early action policy at Yale.

Association of Yale Alumni Executive Director Jeff Brenzel said alumni today are more diverse and less likely to agree with everything their president says or does than they once were. So far as president, Levin has not made any comments that have drawn fire and alienated constituencies to the extent that Summers’ comments have, Brenzel said.

Summers is not the first Harvard president to come under fire for his comments about women. In 1899, then-Harvard President Charles William Eliot said women’s colleges should stop trying to imitate the curriculum of men’s colleges and instead become “schools of manners,” according to a 1999 Harvard Magazine article.

Additionally, research universities depend more on federal funding than they did in the past, Smith said, and presidents must be careful not to alienate government officials.

The increasing responsibilities of the university president and changes in how the media reports stories has made university presidents more circumspect in what they say publicly, former Yale President Howard Lamar said.

“That’s too bad, because one used to think of university presidents of distinguished institutions as speaking out about things and being heard and respected, even if there’s a disagreement,” said Lamar, who served as interim president from 1992 to 1993. “I think there’s a change in the attitude towards the press and reporting, as well as the complexity of these positions.”

Before occupying the White House, Woodrow Wilson, as president of Princeton University, earned a reputation in the press as a political progressive because of his efforts to abolish the university’s famed eating clubs, Wilson biographer John Milton Cooper said. Since current university presidents have greater, but more specialized, responsibilities, such as fundraising, they have little time to play a large role in the public sphere, Cooper said.

“There was a kind of intellectual and cultural leadership we just don’t have so much of anymore,” Cooper said.

[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”16599″ ]