Thursday, February 16, 2006

Has Summers Lost His Faculty? by Gerald Early

In the Center of it All
Has Summers Lost His Faculty?
Categories: Academia

Harvard President Lawrence Summers is in trouble again. Or let us say his troubles have reached a certain pitch as to make the news again. This time, a number of his faculty are up in arms about the resignation of William Kirby as Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Some feel he is being pushed out. Mr. Kirby, a professor of Chinese History, was a professor at my institution, Washington University, before he went to Harvard several years ago. I’m sure he scarcely imagined he would eventually make newspapers across the country in this way. Indeed, when most deans step down from their jobs — whether pushed, bribed, exhausted or fired outright — they never make news beyond the local campus paper.

Most people outside the academy have no idea what any dean of an arts and sciences faculty does. Most deans spend a great deal of time dispensing budgetary allocations, asking donors for money or having department heads and faculty ask them for money. Mr. Kirby, like his peers at other institutions, determines the annual budgets of all the departments of arts and sciences. He determines which departments get approvals for new faculty hires. He greatly influences decisions as to who becomes a department chair. He controls the way fundraising dollars flow to departments and programs. He sits on the tenure committee, oversees tenure decisions and can veto any favorable tenure decision if he doesn’t like it.

In short, it is a powerful job. If a faculty has a dean they like or are used to working with, they loathe change. If the president does not have the complete confidence of his or her faculty and makes a change like this, it could be very difficult. The old saw that the battles in academe are so nasty because the stakes are so petty is not quite true. Harvard is a $25 billion institution, after all.

The arts and science faculty have scheduled a no-confidence vote for February 28. (He has already been the unhappy recipient of one such resolution, last March.) Some are ready to move to have him fired. It seems remarkable that a man who has had such success in life as Mr. Summers seems so inept at keeping his job; that is, as Casey Stengel put it, seems so inept at keeping the people who hate him from joining forces with the people who aren’t sure.

Mr. Summers’s problems started shortly after he became president of Harvard in 2001 and got into a contretemps with Cornel West, an internationally known professor in philosophy and African American Studies. Apparently, Mr. Summers did not think much of Mr. West’s non-academic activities and thought he should be writing more straight scholarship and fewer op-ed pieces. Mr. West did not take kindly either to this advice, the way it was delivered or both. He thought Mr. Summers was racist.

On the one hand, it is not so unusual for a college president or dean to take aside one of his or her star faculty, if he or she thinks the person is not quite living up to the marquee lettering. Sometimes, faculty do badly detour in their careers or are mesmerized by the glamorous world of punditry or suffer a kind of “scholar’s block.” In those cases, some avuncular guidance is often useful.

On the other hand, star faculty are famous people who have achieved considerable notice in the world for something that is, more or less, a real set of accomplishments. Like stars in any other profession, they must be approached and handled with some degree of shrewdness and aplomb. According to reports, Mr. Summers does not have the most pleasing bedside manner. In the elite academic world, contention is rife and rivalry is maddening, egos are fragile and stars can easily walk. Mr. West went to Princeton. This made the front page in The New York Times, in part as a story of race and racism in the academy. But I thought that if a black man can have a choice between working at Harvard or working at Princeton, this hardly seems like a story of victimization. It might even seem an old-fashioned story of progress. (Or, otherwise, in America, some blacks are becoming mighty high-priced victims!)

Last year, Mr. Summers offended many of his women faculty when in welcoming remarks at a conference he said that women might be biologically predisposed to not having great success in pursuing scientific careers. Clearly, men and women are different genetically, but whether this difference amounts to nothing more than that one sex carries fetuses for nine months while the other doesn’t has become a source of great political fractiousness. Mr. Summers stepped right into it with the grace of an elephant washing dishes.

There was some debate as to how he framed and intended the remarks but there is little debate about how they were received. When most college presidents make welcoming remarks at a conference, they indicate that they have no idea what the conference is about and are in a considerable hurry to leave to meet with a donor. So, they employ drowse-inducing bureaucratic non-speak: vague phrases about “excellence,” “the spirit of academic inquiry” and “collegial and interdisciplinary exchange.”

Both to his credit and to his folly, Mr. Summers chose to actually say something, as if what the conference was about was actually of some interest to him! It was this, and other things that did not make the news reports, that led to the first no-confidence resolution. How much more of this Mr. Summers can survive is certainly up in the air. Clearly some deep pockets at Harvard want him around; otherwise he would have been fired long ago, if only as a nuisance who keeps getting Harvard bad publicity as a troubled place. But I suspect the opposition is probably lining up deep pockets, too. Faculty at most prestigious colleges and universities are so wrapped up in their research, their intellectual cliques and their classes that it takes something like an administrative earthquake to get them to pay much attention to broader institutional issues. Once they’re riled, they can give the administration and board of trustees all they can handle.

Now, some have interpreted this business at Harvard as yet another battle in the culture wars, that hoary phrase. Whether Mr. Summers is an incompetent or a brusque breath of fresh air is not really the point. Conservatives think Mr. Summers is disliked by his faculty because he exhibits the speech and the attitude of a neo-con. There is no real free speech at the university these days, their argument continues, unless one accepts all liberal left assumptions about the world. The attempts to oust Mr. Summers proves their case. Liberals bristle at this, claiming that Mr. Summers lacks leadership skills, is a difficult personality and exercises poor judgment.

Now, it cannot be denied that there is a liberal or leftward bias among faculty at most prestigious colleges and universities. This bias, often unnoticed because it is assumed to be a self-evident sane view of the world — rather like believing that the sun rises in the east — can have something of a stifling effect on the dimensions of academic dialogue. There are clearly certain things that cannot be said without the speaker bringing down waterfalls of execration. I know what most of my colleagues want to hear. But then again Mr. Summers may be an incompetent who should be fired regardless of whether he is politically incorrect.

As for my own views of the matter: first, I don’t work at Harvard, so I don’t have to have a view. Second, I learned when I was a kid to be enough of a conservative to every liberal and enough of liberal to every conservative to put people in the quandary of whether they should court me madly as a convert or distrust me as traitor. I take my lessons from baseball: be a good pitcher and give the batter what he wants but not quite in the way he is expecting to get it. There is no other way to live.


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