Opinion- 01 February 2005

 

 

 

 

Harvard's President Makes Headlines for the Wrong Reasons -- Can his Grand Vision Survive?


 

    In 1987 as a 33 year old, Lawrence Summers was named Harvard's Nathaniel Ropes Professor of Political Economy. He also served as US Secretary of the Treasury replacing Robert Rubin in July 1999, and on the first of July 2001 he replaced the retiring Neil Rudenstine as Harvard's president.

    Brilliant, driving, argumentative, abrasive and arrogant, Summers sometimes seems to be his own worst enemy and there is more than one Harvard faculty member waiting and wishing for Summers to selfdestruct.

 

On July 14 Summers spoke to an off-the-record meeting of the National Bureau of Economic Research at Cambridge, Massachusetts and according to Nature, while there is no transcript of what he said, "by most accounts, he talked about potential reasons why so few women reach top positions in science and engineering. And he at least raised the possibility that innate differences could play a part."

 

Science was somewhat more specific, "Summers argued that women typically do not work the 80-hour weeks common to professions like law, business, or science. And while noting that socialization and bias may slow the progress of women, he cited the gender variation in test scores as a possible explanation for the larger number of men at the top of the professional ladder." In any case whatever Summers did say so infuriated MIT's professor of biology, Nancy Hopkins, she conspicuously walked out. Hopkins led a highly publicised 1999 effort to expose unconscious bias at MIT.

 

The mass media quickly got hold of the event with the New York Times reporting:

January 18 - Harvard Chief Defends His Talk on Women

January 21 - President of Harvard Tells Women's Panel He's Sorry

January 26 - At Harvard, the Bigger Concern of the Faculty Is the President's Management Style

Nature's January 27 editorial saw some dark humour in the episode"

Whatever his actual words, the interpretation that women suffer an inborn and insurmountable intellectual handicap in science whipped up a firestorm of protest both on and off Harvard's (male-dominated) campus. Swamped by fuming letters and stinging media reports, Summers has released serial cringing apologies in which he emphasized his efforts to bump up the number of female scholars at Harvard actions for which some staff, at least, give him credit.

Professor Hopkins has been quoted in the media following the Harvard President's address -- which he is said to have prefaced with, "I'm here to provoke you" -- as saying, "I felt I was going to be sick... my heart was pounding and my breath was shallow... I was extremely upset."

 

Ruth Marcus, a member of the Washington Post's editorial staff wasn't overly impressed by Professor Hopkins and wrote on January 22, "Was there a feminist around -- myself included -- who didn't wince at this bring-out-the-smelling-salts statement?" And went on to say in Summers' defence, "Summers (even in his earlier, unexpurgated form) wasn't saying that no individual woman could be a stellar scientist, or mathematician, or engineer, only that overall one gender might be more inclined in that direction than the other... The Summers storm might have been easy to forecast. But it says less, in the end, about the Harvard president than it does about the unwillingness of the modern academy to tolerate the kind of freewheeling inquiry that academics and intellectuals above all ought to prize rather than revile."

 

 Virginia Valian, professor of psychology and linguistics at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center in New York and author of "Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women", responds in the January 30 issue of the Washington Post to the points that Professor Summers is reported to have raised in his NBER address and sites studies in rebuttal to the suggestion that there is an innate sexual difference regarding ability in maths and science as a factor in unequal representation in university faculties.

 

But as the NYT headline of January 26, At Harvard, the Bigger Concern of the Faculty Is the President's Management Style,  indicates Summers has a very serious administrative problem which he has now unwittingly allowed to reach dangerous proportions. In fact a week earlier Nature published a three page news feature by Helen Pearson -- obviously written before Summers' NBER remarks and subsequent mea culpas -- titled "The premier division".  It opens with the header, "Since he took over as Harvard President in 2001, Larry Summers' style and vision have divided the university. As his plans for expansion step up a gear, Summers tells Helen Person why it is time for Cambridge to face up to the need for change." Cambridge referring to the Boston suburb occupied by Harvard.

 

Shortly after Summers assumed the presidency he put forward his overall vision for Harvard to remain top of the academic heap and in no uncertain terms indicated that for the university to tread water was not going to be satisfactory -- it needed a drastic overhaul. In practice this means Summers intends for Harvard "to spend billions of dollars" turning the rather rundown suburb of Allston across the Charles River from Cambridge into a campus bigger than its Cambridge parent. Currently the Allston site houses the Harvard Business School. Together with the expansion of infrastructure Summers wants a far greater resourcing of the sciences to the point where it assumes pre-eminence, a revamping of its undergraduate program and a greater degree of central governance thereby reducing the traditional powers of Harvard's nine relatively autonomous faculities.

 

Sara Rimer in her January 26 article in the New York Times writes:

A dozen Harvard professors, as well as other educators associated with the university, said in interviews that for all his intellectual vigor and vision, Mr. Summers, a former Harvard economics professor, has created a reservoir of ill will with what they say is a pattern of humiliating faculty members in meetings, shutting down debate and dominating discussions. This ill will, they say, has helped fuel the fury on campus over what Mr. Summers initially said were meant to be provocative, off-the-record remarks at an academic conference here on Jan. 14.

Rimer's article prompted an immediate reply from Steven Shavell, Professor of Law and Economics, Harvard Law School.

To the Editor:

Re "At Harvard, the Bigger Concern of the Faculty Is the President's Management Style" (Education page, Jan. 26):

    There are many faculty members at Harvard who are not "concerned" about the management style of Lawrence H. Summers, the university's president, but who rather strongly support his leadership of our university, and for two basic reasons.

 

    First, his substantive decisions strike us as good (notably, his expansion of the campus and his plans to invest significantly in the sciences).

    Second, Mr. Summers' statements about issues of concern at the university seem to us intelligent and honest.

 

But we do have a criticism of Mr. Summers: that he apologizes for perceived political incorrectness. At universities, of all places, the ability to speak freely needs to be preserved.

Melissa Franklin is an experimental particle physicist who has been working on the Collider Detector at Fermilab, an experiment designed generally to study the collisions of protons and anti-protons at the highest energies currently possible. With her graduate students and postdoctoral staff, she is presently building a large cylindrical drift chamber to measure the momentum of the outcoming particles. She is also upgrading one of the central muon detectors.

The criticisms of Summers reduce to two, those of style and those of substance. The former seem as much as anything to stem from what Summers and his supporters see as his predilection for vigorous cut and thrust argumentation and discussion but his critics see as overbearing intimidation. Particle physicist Professor Melissa Franklin who had been prepared to have and did have her say at a Summers' meeting told Rimer she felt encouraged afterward when Summers telephoned her to say "he wanted to explore her concerns." In short he seemed to have taken in what she had to say and thought about it, despite arguing her down.

 

On the other hand he can make public statements which are just plain stupid to say publicly whether or not they have some merit. He is quoted in an October article in The Guardian, "You know, sometimes fear does the work of reason."

 

But the substance of Summers vision is quite a different matter. His urbane predecessor, Neil Rudenstine played the part of an almost archetypical Harvard president, a fund raiser who exercised careful diplomacy with the faculty deans. With Summers it's much more, "This is the way it's gonna be".

 

So far he seems to have the Harvard Board on his side, but it could change if Summers is begun to be seen as a liability for Harvard's image and there are enough Harvard faculty who wouldn't mind that.

But also Summers is not only wanting to change the very fabric of Harvard's academic precepts, he is also signalling the allocation of billions of dollars in order to realize what he sees as his vision of his university. And those dollars are Harvard's dollars. That there is some angst at the station is understandable.

 

From an Australian viewpoint the drama that is being played out by Larry Summers and Harvard ought to give pause. Not one of Summers' critics questions his desire to make Harvard a greater institution than it already is, only his methods. Would the same were true for those who control the resources and destiny of Australia's universities.

 

Alex Reisner

The Funneled Web