Summers is a square peg in a round hole at Harvard

February 26, 2006|By MICHAEL HILL | MICHAEL HILL,SUN REPORTER

If you think turning a battleship around is hard, you should try turning around a big research university.

"It's like a battleship that's going in many different directions at the same time," says John Toll, former head of the University of Maryland, College Park and the state's university system. "It's more like a fleet."

So Lawrence Summers, who announced last week that he was leaving the presidency of Harvard University after five controversial years in the job, gets some sympathy.

He had a tough job, but seemed ideal for it - a hotshot economist who zoomed up the academic ladder at Harvard, then became secretary of the treasury in the Clinton administration - clearly, an incredibly smart person returning to his academic roots with wide-ranging experience behind him.

While Summers was brought in to make changes - he made it clear at the start that he thought Harvard had become complacent, that it was no longer on the intellectual cutting edge - his attempt to turn the crimson fleet in a different direction ended badly

He managed to alienate the faculty to such an extent that he suffered a vote of no confidence. Another loomed on the horizon when he decided to quit, apparently finally losing the backing of the school's governing board.

For some, this is a black mark on American higher education, in large part because it happened at Harvard.

"Harvard is a special case," says Donald Langenberg, former chancellor of the University System of Maryland. "It is incredibly visible. There have been several presidents this year - as there always are - who have left office under some kind of difficulty, but when the Harvard president does it, it's national news."

When the faculty of perhaps the most prestigious institution in the country rebels when called upon to make needed changes, it is seen as a blow to all of higher education in the United States.

David Breneman, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, sums up the arguments of those who see Summers' resignation as a disaster this way: "The overseers hired somebody to come in and shake the place up a bit, which you can't do without making some enemies, but when push came to shove, he was hung out to dry."

"I feel sorry for Harvard," says Toll. "I think it's going through a bad convulsion. I think [Summers] was a good president. He made some mistakes, but we all do. I think they should have said that he was learning and that they should have kept him."

But Breneman tends to take another view. "I can think of very effective presidents who have managed to do very good things without dragging the institution down on their heads."

Breneman says he does not know Summers personally, but from accounts of the ongoing tension, he attributes it to Summers' style of governing.

"I don't think its rocket science, frankly, to figure out how to get along with the faculty," he says.

"At some level, faculty are very caught up in process," Breneman says. "If you are impatient and want to get something done in a hurry and decide to do it without what in the view of the faculty is proper consultation, you have got to expect this stuff, even if the substance of what you are trying to do is something everybody is happy about."

Steven Muller, president of the Johns Hopkins University from 1972 to 1990, agrees. "I don't have any particular knowledge of what happened at Harvard, but if people on the faculty are reasonable and competent, and whoever is in charge finds it easy to talk with them, then it shouldn't be a big problem," he says. "That's the good situation.

"The bad situation is when the person running the thing really has no rapport with the people who are doing the work."

Yve-Alain Bois, who chaired the history of art department at Harvard under Summers, says that was the situation there.

"He was arrogant and seemed to despise academics," says Bois, who is now at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. "He should never have been a president. ... He could not admit too many mistakes, and every committee he would appoint, when it would propose a solution, if he didn't agree, he would dismiss the committee."

Langenberg says that while university presidents have many constituencies, the faculty is probably the most important.

"If you lose their confidence, it is not a good sign. You are not going to be able to function," he says.

Matthew Crenson, who has seen presidents come and go during his 37 years in the Hopkins political science department, says Summers' problems were more a matter of style than substance.

"It was probably the result of his abrasive personality more than anything else," he says, making it clear that he agrees with what Summers was trying to accomplish.

"Harvard in particular is known for giving undergraduates short shrift," Crenson says. "It has a very distinguished faculty, but it is not clear how much undergraduates see of them."

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