Harvard Coup

by Jason Zengerle | March 7, 2005

Harvard University has a long tradition of aggrieved students laying siege to its buildings. In 1969, about 100 students protesting the Vietnam War marched through Harvard Yard and took over University Hall. In 2001, some 50 students agitating for a living wage for university workers stormed Massachusetts Hall and occupied it for nearly a month. Whenever there is a serious protest at Harvard, it seems, there's the threat that a building will be overrun by rampaging students. This week, however, that vaunted tradition was given an unusual twist. On a cold and gray Tuesday afternoon, about 500 members of the Harvard faculty politely filed into Lowell Hall, just off Harvard Yard, where they proceeded to lay siege to the university's president, Larry Summers.In mid-January, Summers, speaking extemporaneously at an economics conference, said that men and women might possess different "intrinsic aptitude[s]" in science. His remarks set off a firestorm of criticism-- particularly from some prominent female professors at Harvard--and Summers, after initially hesitating, apologized. More concretely, he appointed two task forces, one on women in the faculty and the other on women in science and engineering, and asked them to make recommendations for improving Harvard's recruitment, support, and promotion of women. But the criticism of Summers did not abate, and, on February 15, at the first monthly faculty meeting since his offending remarks, he was confronted yet again--and this time not only about women in science. One professor assailed Summers for his "reckless and repressive leadership." Another accused him of using "fear and manipulation ... to govern capriciously." Eight more professors rebuked him in similarly harsh terms, and, after the allotted 90 minutes--an experience Summers later described as "searing"--the faculty voted to hold an emergency meeting one week later to continue the discussion and, some hoped, to subject Summers to a "no confidence" vote. Shortly before the emergency meeting on February 22, a crowd gathered outside Lowell Hall. Most were professors, some of whom had never attended a faculty meeting before, waiting to get into the building as they stood in a line that snaked out the door and down the street. Scores of reporters-- including those from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and even the BBC--were there as well. Noticeably missing from this campus scene, however, was much of a student presence. Aside from a few dozen student demonstrators-- some holding signs saying larry must go! and divest from unocal and petrochina, others handing out flyers from a group called Students for Larry--most Harvard pupils steered clear of the circus. Surveying the commotion from a distance, a junior classics major named Simon Vozick-Levinson explained students' general lack of interest in Summers's fate. "Most students at Harvard," he said, "don't give a shit about the administration." Indeed, the Summers controversy is one that has been confined almost entirely to Harvard's faculty. Unlike past protests at Harvard--most of which were, if not student-led, at least student-heavy--the uproar over Summers has been a decidedly older affair. But that doesn't mean it has been any less heated. As Claudia Goldin, a Harvard economics professor, remarked a few days before the emergency meeting, "This may be the first time in American history that most university faculties are more radical than students." Which is why, if Summers is to survive this controversy, it will largely be because less radical members of Harvard's faculty learned how to assert themselves. It was probably inevitable that Summers would anger some Harvard faculty members, if only because he was such a dramatic departure from what they were accustomed to. His predecessor, Neil Rudenstine, had been an aggressive fund- raiser. But, in his dealings with professors, he had been extremely hands-off. "Rudenstine was pretty passive," says one senior professor. "And so then all of these guys could just run around and do what they wanted. He gave carte blanche. " This carte blanche, Rudenstine's critics contended, contributed to a decline in Harvard's academic standards--courses became less rigorous and grade inflation soared. (In 2001, Rudenstine's last year as president, 91 percent of Harvard students graduated with honors.) By the end of Rudenstine's ten-year tenure, Harvard's status as the preeminent U.S. academic institution no longer seemed assured. In its search for a new president, then, the seven members of the Harvard Corporation--the university's highest governing body--seemed to be looking for the anti-Rudenstine. In Summers, they found him. A tenured economics professor at Harvard at the age of 28, Summers had left Cambridge in 1991 for a series of policy jobs in Washington, culminating in his appointment as Treasury secretary during the second Clinton administration. With a reputation for being both brilliant and brash, the Corporation clearly hoped that he would shake things up at Harvard. As one corporation member later explained: "We agreed that we needed somebody more aggressive, more pushy, bolder." As president, the 50-year-old Summers has been all of those things. One of the first tasks he tackled was solving Harvard's terrible space crunch in Cambridge by preparing to expand its campus west of the Charles River onto 260 acres the university had acquired in the Allston section of Boston. Harvard had owned the Allston land for some time, but few of its faculty wanted to decamp there--and Rudenstine had been loath to force them to move to a place they considered as remote as Siberia. At one point, he hired avant-garde architect Rem Koolhaas to devise a plan that called for actually moving the Charles River west, thus making Allston part of Cambridge and seemingly solving the faculty's objection to leaving the 02138 zip code. Summers didn't bother with such schemes. Instead, he pressed the faculty on the issue--and came up with a workable plan that, while still in its early stages, will eventually make Allston home to Harvard's graduate schools of education and public health as well as a state-of-the-art life sciences complex. Summers also set about changing Harvard's academic culture. He was distressed that so many Harvard undergrads reported little contact with the university's famous faculty, so he expanded a series of freshman seminars, taught by some of Harvard's most renowned professors, and he even led an undergraduate course himself; he then looked to hire more faculty to improve Harvard's professor-to-student ratio. He also began supervising the faculty more closely--most notably confronting Cornel West, the celebrated Afro- American studies professor, about the quality of West's scholarship and reports that West had missed classes to campaign for Bill Bradley, a confrontation that precipitated West's eventual move to Princeton. "Most presidents think of themselves as having a glorious faculty in fields that maybe they don't understand," says economics professor Goldin. "Larry Summers has been someone who feels that, if he can't understand it, if you can't explain it to him, then he's got to question it. A lot of presidents don't have the time or stomach for that." Most significantly, Summers instituted a formal review of Harvard's core curriculum--something that hadn't been done since 1978. As Summers saw it, the core--with its emphasis on "approaches to knowledge" rather than on hard information--left many Harvard students woefully ignorant of the sciences. So, last April, a Harvard committee proposed a new curriculum that increased the number of required science courses. As Summers explained, "An educational culture where it's an embarrassment to not know the names of five plays by Shakespeare but OK not to know the difference between a gene and a chromosome isn't functional." Indeed, in ways large and small, Summers has sought to bring central oversight to a university that, for the longest time, has been almost pathologically decentralized, with its ten schools operating autonomously. "Long before Larry arrived, people would say Harvard should be greater than the sum of its parts," says Henry Rosovsky, a former dean of Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences and a former member of the Harvard Corporation. "But I think Larry has really attempted to address that issue and has been carrying out various policies of achieving greater power for the president's office." Which, perhaps not surprisingly, has not always sat well with the faculty--some of whom complain that Summers is a dictatorial bully who stifles dissent. "For a quote-unquote radical left faculty," says one senior professor, "it's actually very conservative in the amount of personal investment it has in the status quo. " Of course, the faculty's "radical left" nature is another reason for Summers's current troubles. While Rudenstine rarely uttered a word about political matters, Summers has exhibited no such temerity. Officially sworn in as Harvard president only a month after the September 11 terrorist attacks, he has used his pulpit to preach a patriotic message. "It is all too common for us to underestimate the importance of clearly expressing our respect and support for the military and individuals who choose to serve in the Armed Forces of the United States," he said in an October 2001 speech at Harvard's Kennedy School. Not long after, he reversed a 1960s-era policy that prohibited Harvard students from listing rotc service in the yearbook. And, at the first Harvard commencement over which Summers presided, he requested that "The Star-Spangled Banner" be played to start the proceedings; the ceremony had traditionally begun with Harvard-themed music. Moreover, Summers has not limited his ideological pronouncements to just patriotic issues. In September 2002, in the midst of a faculty and student campaign to pressure Harvard to divest its portfolio of companies that do business in Israel, Summers, who is Jewish, declared that "serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect, if not their intent." All of these stands--along with his dressing down of West--have made Summers a hero to cultural conservatives. But Summers himself is not a conservative. (After all, he was once a policy adviser to Michael Dukakis and then served for eight years in the Clinton administration.) Rather, he is, as James Traub called him in The New York Times Magazine, an "unabashedly mainstream figure." On a campus that is decidedly to the left of the mainstream, however, this can be a source of much consternation. And while, in the current controversy, Summers's critics confine most of their complaints to his remarks on women and the sciences and his leadership style more generally, it's often not hard to detect the political subtext of their grievances. In a speech at the February 15 faculty meeting, for instance, Political Science Professor Theda Skocpol, one of Summers's most vociferous opponents, accused him of harming the university "in effect, if not in intent"--a not-too-subtle rebuke of Summers's pro-Israel comments. The dispute's ideological nature has put Summers at a decided disadvantage. His leading faculty critics, like Skocpol and History of Science Professor Everett Mendelsohn, have long records of campus activism and are experts at the art of academic warfare. "These were the same people who were agitating in the 1970s for various reforms," says Steve Pinker, who was a Harvard graduate student at the time and is now a psychology professor and one of Summers's most outspoken backers. "They're very familiar with speechmaking and petition- signing and verbal manifestos." Indeed, Summers's faculty supporters concede that they were completely unprepared for the February 15 faculty meeting, at which only one of the eleven speakers defended the president. Many of his supporters, says Pinker, "are scientists who have an allergy to any kind of activism or verbal politics ... Who don't often go to faculty meetings. They just want to be left alone in the lab." Immediately after the February 15 meeting, as both sides prepared for the emergency session the following week, Summers's supporters tried to overcome that mentality. Claudia Goldin and another economics professor, David Laibson, drafted a letter that, while acknowledging that Summers had made mistakes and must work on becoming more collegial, argued in favor of his staying on as president. They then sought counsel from, as Goldin described them, the "angels of Harvard"--revered Cambridge figures including Rosovsky and University Librarian Sidney Verba--and, after a few modifications, circulated the document, eventually garnering close to 200 signatures. Other Summers allies quietly lobbied colleagues on his behalf. On the eve of the emergency meeting, The Crimson released a poll of 280 members of the faculty: 32 percent thought Summers should resign; 55 percent thought he should not. That split in opinion seemed to be reflected at the February 22 emergency meeting, where, unlike the meeting a week earlier, Summers's faculty supporters managed to make their voices heard. According to The Crimson, which is the only media outlet permitted to attend Harvard faculty meetings, a natural sciences professor credited Summers for bringing "energy and intelligence" to Harvard. Several other professors made similarly supportive remarks. The tone of this meeting was far more collegial than the last one. And, perhaps most important for Summers, there was no motion for a vote of no confidence. But the criticism was still there. A history professor complained about how Summers had centralized power, destroying Harvard's "self-governing community." And a physics professor became the first faculty member to openly call for Summers's resignation. Summers, once again, tried to appease his critics. He pledged "to listen more--and more carefully--and to temper my words and actions in ways that convey respect and help us work together more harmoniously." He was committed, he said, "to opening a new chapter" in his work with the faculty. But some on the faculty still seemed interested only in a final chapter: An African and African American studies professor later told The Crimson that he intended to move for a vote of "no confidence" in Summers at the next faculty meeting in March. After two hours, the meeting was over, and the faculty came out into the frigid night. The few students who had gathered outside Lowell Hall earlier that day were long gone, but the media hordes remained, and they shined klieg lights and shoved microphones toward the professors' faces, bombarding them with questions about what had happened inside. The professors, unaccustomed to giving sound bites, tried nonetheless, pronouncing the meeting "productive" and "constructive" and "stately." As they answered the queries, Summers himself came out of the building; but, rather than walk through the media gauntlet, he took an alternative route around the side of Lowell Hall. Nonetheless, some reporters spotted him and quickly chased him down. As Summers walked, they formed a moving scrum around him. What did he think of what had just transpired? Did he plan to resign? Summers, still walking, would only say that he found the meeting "constructive" and "productive." Before he had to say any more, he rushed into another building--and, for a moment at least, he got away from the questions and out of the cold.

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