People seem to find endless entertainment in watching the mighty fall from grace for doing something stupid. The country had a good chortle at Trent Lott’s expense when he inadvertently endorsed segregation and promptly lost his job. The late-night comedians seem intent on milking Dick Cheney’s shooting mishap for some time to come. And the Ivy League is at the moment enthralled by the spectacular collapse of Harvard President Lawrence Summers. The Harvard faculty and the national media have been hunting Summers ever since he rather unwisely implied, in a speech more than a year ago, that women might lack the innate scientific and mathematical abilities of men. He has been bleeding steadily ever since then, and on Tuesday a combination of fate, political correctness and faculty anger over a range of other causes finally caught up with Summers — the poachers moved in for the kill, and a cornered Summers resigned.
Yalies, set in their Cantab-hating ways, have grown accustomed to thinking of the Harvard president as evil personified, and will tend to revel in his downfall with the glee of Ewoks in the wake of the Death Star’s destruction. But following the Summers saga has value beyond mere Schadenfreude. His coerced resignation should make not just President Levin, or his peers at other schools, but all of us students contemplate the role of the modern university executive. For there are important lessons about leadership in academia to be gleaned from the Harvard decapitation.
The Summers affair shows clearly that the head of an institution like Harvard or Yale is a human starting gun. Summers opened his mouth and discovered before he knew it that he had ignited a firestorm over the issues of sex and gender. But this was hardly atypical of the Ivy League president’s normal capacity to shape the national debate: A man like Levin has a remarkable ability, almost unrivaled throughout the American educational and political landscape, to set the agenda in a number of areas. The budgetary decisions he makes, the priorities he sets and the new initiatives he pushes affect billions of dollars spent by countless other institutions of higher learning that look to places like Yale for leadership. His actions on issues like graduate student unionization or financial aid policy have a disproportionate impact on the tenor of these debates throughout the country — once Yale acts, a whole host of other schools may feel compelled to follow. To cite just one example, the University’s decision last week to divest from government bonds and oil companies in Sudan has greatly increased the pressure on other wealthy universities throughout the country to do the same.
University presidents frequently have a reach that extends even further. Their quest to advance their school’s status and quality often carries them into spheres only distantly related to higher educational policy. Levin has sat on a national WMD commission alongside John McCain, has lobbied Washington policy makers to reform the U.S. visa system, and has even, with almost Nixonian flourish, “opened China” to Yalies in a way that has a genuine impact on U.S.-China relations. And I haven’t even touched on the vast impact a university president can have on the school’s immediate urban surroundings.
I write all this not to stoke paranoia or build up an image of Levin as a shadowy Mr. Burns-like figure, but simply to suggest that perhaps the Summers resignation sends a positive message about accountability on college campuses. For the fact of the matter is that officials such as Levin and Summers are not elected, even though their influence likely exceeds that of most American elected officials; they are in fact only formally accountable to an elite group of overwhelmingly wealthy individuals who serve on their university boards. But while we don’t know the full story of the behind-the-scenes drama surrounding the Harvard resignation, it has certainly sent a clear message that a university president who ignores the wishes of the faculty or students, or says something unpopular in the country at large, does so at his or her own risk.
Clearly, this is a potential negative. Given the unique opportunity university presidents have to call attention to problems and issues which need to be addressed in our society, we must be wary of grooming overly cautious, overly political bureaucrats who say exactly the right things to the right people in order to stay in control of their schools, without ever pushing the envelope or challenging the status quo. On the whole, I think today we live with a collection of Ivy League administrators who are if anything too cautious, too reluctant to engage in bold rhetorical flourishes for fear of being Summersed out of office.
But at the same time, I can’t mourn the fact that Summers, and other school presidents, are clearly checked and balanced by their own faculties, by their students and by the national media. University presidents have a powerful impact on American society. They should be held to America’s highest expectations, and thoroughly chastised whenever they fall short. The challenge for the rest of us, students and faculty alike, is to encourage Levin and his ilk to be bold in their aspirations and bolder in their rhetoric, and only jump down their collective throats if and when they actually start to abuse the considerable authority with which they have been entrusted.
Roger Low is a junior in Branford College. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.