I must admit that I was surprised when Lawrence Summers, Harvard’s 27th president, announced his resignation last Tuesday. Across the country, people are probably congratulating themselves for having predicted the downfall well in advance. After all, didn’t last year’s debacle over women’s inherent scientific ability set the stage for a juicy, hubristic collapse in the spirit of classic Greek tragedy? Isn’t the dramatic resignation a satisfying case of Aristotelian catharsis, the tragic hero accepting his unfortunate fate so that the long-suffering citizens of Cambridge can at last be free from plague and get on with their lives?
Call me naive, but considering that the controversial resignation, let alone the faculty vote of no-confidence that Summers was subjected to, was unprecedented in Harvard’s history, last week’s events were far from inevitable. At least, not for the reason most of us might think. Summers’ remarks on the capacity of the female scientific mind may have been badly timed and inappropriate considering his position, but it would be misleading to see them as an indication of his destined failure.
Instead, consider the whole scandal as a summary of Summers’ confusion over his role within the University. To him, the talk attempted progressive thinking, and took necessary risks in breaking the boundaries of political correctness to get at the truth. To much of Harvard’s faculty and the rest of academia, the whole affair seemed strangely regressive. Cracks at women in science? Totally retro.
Unlike the 218-member majority of Harvard’s faculty who turned against him in the vote of no confidence, Summers appears to see himself as a kind of misunderstood academic warrior, a visionary who came before his time. He sees himself as a progressive educator in an institution hesitant to move forward. Summers’ letter explaining his resignation, published on the Harvard Web site, argues aggressively for his vision of possible progress within the University. The word “new” appears five times, as does “renew;” the phrase “agenda of renewal” is a particularly telling example of his sense of Harvard’s needs, and could serve as a kind of slogan for Summers’ view of his presidential legacy.
Summers captures his entire viewpoint as follows: “Believing deeply that complacency is among the greatest risks facing Harvard, I have sought for the last five years to prod and challenge the University to reach for the most ambitious goals in creative ways.” Later he added, “We have recognized in the last several years … that the quality of the experience we provide our students is not fully commensurate with their quality or the quality of the Harvard faculty.” For Summers, the need to rejuvenate the university and focus its energies on creating a better future has become more than just a theme of his short-lived tenure. It’s an obsession.
If only Summers had realized that progressive education cannot be initiated by the efforts, however well-intended and strenuous, of a single leader. As it was conceived of in the early 20th century, “progressive education” centered on the idea that a school could function both as a microcosm of democratic society and as a means to promote that society in a larger context when the engaged students graduated to become engaged citizens. The means to achieve this goal has long since come into academic vogue as a keyword and a cliche that diversity within the student and faculty bodies must be encouraged.
It is this essential element that Summers ignored while promoting his vision of Harvard’s renewal during his presidency. However productive his ideas, which included the campus’s physical expansion and the further integration of the science program into the undergraduate curriculum, his push for such progress at the expense of marginalizing faculty and students revealed a thorough misinterpretation of the meaning of progressive education. For progress to be achieved, a university cannot be organized like a hierarchical ship; this sentiment was similarly expressed in this paper recently by Philip Kuhn, a Harvard professor, and encapsulates the frustration that many faculty members felt over their seeming marginalization in the process to determine Harvard’s direction.
Perhaps Summers, as the Harvard Board members wrote in their own letter, has indeed “served Harvard with extraordinary vision and vitality,” and as this scandal passes and Summers resumes his Harvard professorship in two years, perhaps he will be remembered for such. But Summers’ case should serve as a warning to other institutions that aspire to similar ideals that the most progressive actions, when initiated and carried out by an individual, cannot lead to collectively successful advancement.
Alexandra Schwartz is a freshman in Saybrook College.