A few disconnected thoughts on the resignation of Larry Summers.
1) At the time of the original explosion about Summers’ remarks on gender, it seemed to me that the debate about him outside of Harvard led away from more important issues. That’s probably still the case: it will take a few days to see whether the public interpretation of this is “liberal academics force out someone over political correctness” or not. I hope that’s not what the final understanding settles on, because I don’t think the problems at Harvard have had much to do with political correctness or liberal politics as those terms are typically understood. Summers may be a martyr in certain ways, but not to some kind of mob leftism.
2) The real general problem, I think, is that academic institutions have become extraordinarily difficult to lead in some strongly centralized and idiosyncratic direction. They’re diffuse and composed of many different constituencies that have independent sources of power and influence, all the more so at larger universities that have affiliated institutes and a range of professional schools. Anyone at all who came into Harvard or any similar institution with the intent to push the institution in some generally new direction, no matter what the agenda or politics of that direction, would probably find it close to impossible to do so. Most university and college presidents have to be content with nudging and cajoling faculty, staff, students, alumni and other stakeholders. The most ambitious leaders probably would be wise to just concentrate on one or two notable initiatives or efforts at reform. This is possibly the most important repeated message I can offer through this blog to observers of higher education: academics may or may not be liberal in their politics, but they are most definitely and dramatically conservative in their temperments, in their posture towards their own institutions. Change sits poorly with most academics. If you believe, as I do, that higher education is soon to experience serious, irresistable external pressure on some of its deepest traditions and accustomed practices, this is seriously worrisome. I feel for anyone, Larry Summers included, who have ambitions to lead institutions of higher education to any kind of sustained changes. Harvard more than most institutions probably needs some shaking up. It may be financially successful, but the education it delivers to its undergraduates has been (fairly, in my view) characterized as far less successful than it should be given all the wealth and resources of the institution. There are some pretty substantial changes to curricular structure, instructional delivery, and faculty recruitment and retention that most colleges and universities might benefit from, but Harvard more than many.
3) However. Such ambitions would go a lot further in the hands of someone more skilled politically and interpersonally than Summers. There’s a lot of evidence that he was very successful within the political culture of Washington. The story of Summers at Harvard suggests a persistent inability to adapt his skills to a new environment. I’m not saying that you have to be a milquetoast to succeed in that role, but you sure as hell better choose your fights better than he did and fight with tools and methods appropriate to the battlefield you find yourself on. Summers came into Harvard and immediately made some really serious missteps that very much predate later controversies in the public eye. I think it’s especially important for a reformer in an academic institution to try and formulate reforms in terms that are potentially applicable even-handedly, across the board, and offered in a collaborative spirit. If you want to argue that you expect your faculty to dedicate themselves more to teaching, for example, you don’t pick one or two people to harrass over that question. You propose a general standard, push for it insistently in general meetings, and try to figure out ways to hold people accountable from that point onward for meeting that standard. You pursue practices of transparency and accountability that include your own office as a way to expose practices or behaviors that you want to reform. Reform has to be inclusive, and it has to address the infrastructure of governance and process. It can’t look like a vendetta. It can’t exempt your favored sympathizers. Summers never seemed to understand that: he poked and prodded here and there, needlessly antagonized potential allies, rubbed people the wrong way, and even took the bully pulpit without the charm and brio that doing so successfully requires.
So whatever the deeper issues might be, the unsuccessful tenure of Larry Summers at Harvard is first and foremost a story about the details of leadership and management. Some people can’t transfer their formidable skills between different kinds of environment, and Summers appears to be one of them. That’s too bad, and I hope he has a chance some day to return to the kinds of institutional and political worlds where his undeniable intellect and energy are best expressed. That’s a more boring and particular story than the narrative that the culture warriors might prefer, but I think that’s the main issue in this case.