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The insurrection

Harvard needed Larry Summers. The board's failure to stand by him suggests its members don't know what it takes to lead a great university.


(Steve Brodner)

WHEN JAMES BRYANT CONANT became president of Harvard in 1933, he took over an institution riddled with anti-Semitism, bound by parochial ties to wealthy Northeastern families, and hostile to the broad teaching of modern science. Fortunately for Harvard and for the United States, Conant could rely for two decades on the firm backing of the Harvard Corporation as he implemented a curriculum that became the gold standard of American education in liberal arts. Although Conant served more than half a century ago, the Harvard that the world imagines today-an internationally renowned center of learning that attracts the brightest minds in every discipline-is very much his creation.

For the past three decades, however, Harvard's reputation for preeminence has not always reflected reality in Cambridge. Who now thinks Harvard is better in engineering than MIT or Caltech? Who thinks Harvard's Law School, hobbled by rancorous dissent, is better than Yale's, Virginia's, or Stanford's? Its Philosophy Department, once the home of William James, C.I. Lewis, and W.V.O. Quine, is now typically ranked below departments at Michigan and Pittsburgh.

Harvard's relative decline is not entirely its own fault: It is difficult to remain at the top in dozens of academic fields, especially in a prosperous nation where many universities pursue excellence. Is it Harvard's fault that the University of Texas became ambitious enough to lure away Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg and his entire team?

And yet we expect more of Harvard than of other schools, if only because its $26 billion endowment alone accounts for 9 percent of the total endowments of America's 3,500 colleges and universities. A university that rich cannot have financial problems and ought to be able to maintain its lead in all fields. Harvard has not.

One would suppose that some such candid self-assessment led the Harvard Corporation to appoint Larry Summers as president in 2001. Summers's vast experience in government and world affairs gave him a perspective on the world and Harvard's position in it not available to those who have never left the cloistered confines of academia. He did not come complacently to Harvard, ready to accept the status quo. He came to make Harvard-great as it is-even greater and to guide Harvard into new important areas of study and service.

Why then did the Harvard Corporation quaver before a few hostile articles in the press, generated by faculty ideologues who, with rare exceptions, spoke under the cloak of anonymity? Why did the board cast aside the best and most effective president of Harvard since Conant at the behest of a minority of faculty?

The Boston Globe and The New York Times reported the opinions of faculty members that there was a ''crisis at Harvard," ''a state of paralysis," that it was overwhelmed by ''a tide of chaos and dysfunction," and that the cause was one man-Larry Summers.

But the facts are very different. Harvard was and is functioning beautifully. Students are attending classes. The faculty-even those fomenting revolt-were and are teaching their classes and continuing their research in all of Harvard's many schools and colleges. The situation at Harvard today can hardly be compared to the paralysis in the Vietnam era. The fact that a small minority of faculty wished to depose the president did not constitute a crisis until the Corporation made it one.

Summers's removal will haunt Harvard as it seeks his successor. Harvard needed what Larry Summers had to offer. But will anyone of his drive and courage now take the job?

. . .

As the Harvard Corporation proclaimed in announcing his departure, Summers ''brought to the leadership of the University a sense of bold aspiration and initiative, a prodigious intelligence, and an insistent devotion to maximizing Harvard's contributions to the realm of ideas and to the larger world." This is quite an endorsement, one fully merited by Summers's major accomplishments-including, among other initiatives, the Allston campus, the digitizing of library holdings, the Stem Cell Institute, and curricular reform.

Summers also fulfilled his academic responsibilities by questioning the work of faculty and challenging ideologues to support their claims with facts. Many faculty members believe they are infallible and that no president should dare criticize them, while every faculty member sheltered in the cocoon of tenure feels free to criticize the president (though again, usually on the condition of anonymity). Woe to the president who asserts his right to criticize a faculty member.

Summers also exercised his intellectual leadership in a forthright address to an academic conference on women in science. By raising provocative questions, he had the temerity to assert that no subject of scientific inquiry is taboo in the university.

As has been noted, Summers is himself partially to blame for his loss of authority. In a futile effort to placate his critics, he met with faculty and apologized for the way he expressed himself. He was not so much arrogant as naive, for his critics were not seeking understanding, but power; they interpreted his repeated efforts at reconciliation as weakness and vulnerability. Summers made the mistake of apologizing again and again for being right.

But the members of the Harvard Corporation must accept most of the blame for Summers's fall and its consequences. Disgruntled faculty activists were greatly emboldened in recent weeks when members of the Corporation began meeting with them behind Summers's back. There is nothing so effective as Star Chamber proceedings to secure a conviction. The Corporation must also accept responsibility for taking far too seriously the vote of no confidence among members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Only 218 out of 657 members of one Harvard faculty supported the measure. The vote would have been meaningless if the Corporation had ignored or repudiated it.

In recent years the faculty of Emerson College in Boston has twice voted no confidence in President Jacqueline Liebergott, but Emerson's Board has wisely supported her in developing a new campus and resisting faculty obstruction.

At Boston University in the 1970s, I raised standards for tenure and promotion, fought the formation of a faculty union, restored ROTC, and addressed our precarious finances. I was twice subjected to votes of no-confidence-about 500 voted the first time, about 700 the second, and in each case the majority of professors attending voted against me. Nine deans called for my resignation. I was even falsely accused of going through the wastebaskets of faculty and employing photographic surveillance. One distinguished faculty member who opposed my reforms lamented, ''Why don't you let the university go bankrupt with dignity?"

The attempt by faculty at Boston University to unseat its president was ended by a vote of confidence from the Board of Trustees. The late Arthur Metcalf, a member of the board, brought its deliberations to a close by saying, ''If the board removes its president, Boston University will descend into the leperdom it shall richly deserve." The board then gave me its hearty endorsement by a three-fourths majority. While many faculty members and deans believed my dreams were impossible aspirations, the board shared my vision of a great Boston University. The board's resolve ended the revolt, and board members proudly endured the contumely of the press.

The members of the Harvard Corporation have shown no such courage, nor did they understand that the changes they endorsed would inevitably lead to controversy. Faculty members may be well-informed in their specializations, but they have limited knowledge and experience-and no responsibility-with regard to the needs and goals of the university as a whole. They lack the objectivity to govern the entire university or to assess the president's service to it.

...

The Corporation's failure of nerve has debased the presidency of Harvard. The office is now at the mercy of any minority of faculty who can convince the media that a contrived tempest in a teapot is a crisis of major proportions and, thereby, spook the members of the Corporation.

Where will Harvard now turn to find another leader? The Corporation has repudiated a strong president who recognized Harvard's weaknesses and was determined to correct them and who perceived new objectives and was determined to pursue them. Many timid and compliant souls will seek this prestigious office with promises of obeisance. But what outstanding person intent on making a difference at Harvard will consider it?

One member of the Corporation, Nannerl O. Keohane, anticipates no problem. ''Faculty members are not interested in 'taking over' the university," Keohane pronounced; ''they are mainly interested in getting on with the work they do as teachers and scholars." This is true for the large majority of faculty who supported Summers but stuck to their work. It is pure balderdash with regard to those who schemed to remove him. Their appetite for power increased by what it fed on. Summers's opponents now propose changes such as giving professors a controlling voice in the appointment of deans and even putting faculty members on the Corporation.

Once reality sets in, the Harvard Corporation may well abandon the quest for another Conant, a president who can restore substance to the university's international reputation. It may perhaps adopt the German system, permitting the faculty to elect a rector who will serve with limited influence for two or three years. Power will then be thoroughly diffused among deans and activist faculty. But Harvard may then need to replace its motto-Veritas-with Status Quo.

John Silber is University Professor of Philosophy and Law at Boston University. He served as Boston University's president from 1971 to 1996.

Stories from the Globe archives:
 Another victim of tumultuous politics (By H.D.S. Greenway, Boston Globe, 2/28/06)
 Anatomy of Summers's fall (By Jeff Jacoby, Globe Columnist, 2/26/06)
 At Harvard, faculty push for openness (By Maria Sacchetti and Kathleen Burge, Globe Staff, 2/24/06)
 University prepares to search for new leader, amid speculation (By Jenna Russell, Globe Staff, 2/23/06)
 Summers waged final, futile battle (By Marcella Bombardieri, Globe Staff, 2/23/06)
 Summers to step down, ending tumult at Harvard (By Marcella Bombardieri and Maria Sacchetti, Globe Staff, 2/22/06)
 Coup against Summers a dubious victory for the politically correct (By Alan M. Dershowitz, Boston Globe, 2/22/06)
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