MARCH 6, 2006
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I KNOW SOMETHING ABOUT THE Harvard academy's propensity for self-pampering and self-importance. And the problem with Larry Summers is that he never joined what the American cultural critic Harold Rosenberg devastatingly called "the herd of independent minds." I'd encountered Summers a few times before his return to Cambridge--most memorably when both of us skulked around a Nashville hotel suite on November 7, 2000, waiting for NBC to decide whether Al Gore or George W. Bush had been elected president. Summers's arrival at Harvard was bracing. The Harvard Corporation had finally decided to bring the university into modern times, and it had chosen an at once dazzling and sober intellectual to do it. You could feel the walls of the faculty club tremble. Well, the walls of the club that serves the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), anyway. This is an important distinction. There are other faculties at Harvard--law, medicine, public health, business, et cetera--and it's hard to find more than a handful of professors at these places offended by what Summers has said or done. They, in fact, have been cheering him on. So, in forcing Summers's resignation, the FAS, in an alliance of frightened souls and hyped-up orators, has pulled off a coup--facilitated by the fact that hard scientists, true social scientists, and serious humanists lack the inclination to go to conspiratorial caucus meetings.
IT IS IMPORTANT TO NOTE THAT THE LAST Harvard president who left under duress was Nathan Pusey. The Corporation eased him out in 1971 in response to a coalition of angry lefty faculty (I ruefully confess I was one of them) and a volatile student body, somehow blaming Pusey for Harvard snobbism, the Vietnam war, and American racism. This time, the coup was no alliance of professors and undergraduates. In fact, several polls showed that most undergraduates and graduate students wanted Summers to stay on. The Harvard Crimson was on his side. When the news wafted through campus that Summers was going to resign, a crowd of several hundred mobbed Massachusetts Hall, shouting, "Five more years!" He'd been called "Larry" by the students almost from the beginning. This was not false intimacy, but affection and appreciation. They understood that, in a very deep sense, he was on their side--and there are sides. Larry taught freshman seminars and regular lecture courses. Since he came, the average debt of graduating seniors has fallen by more than half. He started a desperately needed curricular review that many faculty did not want, and they sabotaged it with a combination of committee truculence and their relentless campaign against him.
ONE COMPLAINT AGAINST SUMMERS IS that he was not tactful. But tact is not the issue. It's conviction that's the issue, and many FAS faculty do not like his convictions. His conviction that ROTC at Harvard should not be held hostage to the Vietnam war. His conviction that a university professor--the highest professorial rank, held by only 19 individuals--should do real scholarship and actually give grades to his students. (This is the famous case of Cornel West, who left for Princeton and now travels the revolutionary circuit, most recently cheering on Venezuela's dictator, Hugo Chávez.) His conviction was that agitation for universities to disinvest from companies doing business with Israel was more than faintly anti-Semitic.
THEN THERE WAS THE CONTROVERSY over the aptitude of women in science and the hysteria among the politically correct that would deny academics (and a university president, in particular) the right to cogitate in public over an intellectually controversial issue. How many conversations have I heard in Cambridge bewailing the fact that politicians are not honest in their views? Well, believe me, when Summers tried to raise a hypothesis--one of many, and not necessarily his own view--on the fraught question of why women are so underrepresented in physics and mathematics, the enraged did not want to hear his honest thoughts. They wanted him to be silent. They wanted him to behave like a politician.
THE KNIFE IN THE BACK CAME OVER THE resignation of the dean of the FAS, William Kirby. I count Kirby as a friend. I like him. I've read some of his work on Chinese history. I'm no expert, but it is persuasive history and elegantly written. Still, the sad fact is that almost no one would have said a few months ago that he was a good dean. Not, that is, until Summers let him go. Then Kirby became a hero and a pawn to those professors who had tried so long to bring Summers down. The fight, of course, was over how future deans would be chosen. It is not clear what process will be mandated, but it is evident that the FAS wants a big hand in the decanal appointment. This is not democracy; it is chaos, the politicization of an academic office.
I DON'T KNOW WHICH OF SUMMERS'S achievements are now in peril. Certainly not the stem-cell research center or the aids projects in Africa. The inevitable move linking Harvard in Cambridge to Harvard in Boston across the Charles River will proceed. Google's digitization of the Harvard libraries seems unstoppable. So what is endangered? The élan and confidence with which Harvard links big science with medicine, economics, politics, philosophy, and the arts, no longer separate or separable fields but tied together in their pursuit of humane ends. That is Summers's vision.
AS THE CORPORATION WAS CAUCUSING with faculty, friends of Harvard were a bit dazed by our impending defeat. My friend Yo-Yo Ma was one of these people. He had persuaded Summers that his Silk Road Project to study the movement of music through space and time--and to make and play that music--had a place at Harvard. Summers instantly grasped the idea, and the Silk Road is now part of Harvard's curriculum. "What I like about Larry," said Yo-Yo to me on the phone from a Silk Road program in Charlottesville, Virginia, "is that he understands that nobody knows everything: not he, not you, not me. But he also understands that one cannot have a coherent view of the world without trying to know what the other knows. Larry's is an analytic mind, and yet he makes so much room for the cultural and emotional sphere, even the irrational--that which is ultimately human." So what kind of president will Harvard seek now? Almost certainly a lesser person than the one it just forced out.
This article originally ran in the March 6, 2006, issue of the magazine.