Summers Vacation

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.

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13 Responses to Summers Vacation

  1. barry says:

    “There’s a lot of evidence that he was very successful within the political culture of Washington.”

    From what I gathered, wasn’t one of his big roles to be a voice for Wall Street? That was back when fiscal sanity was prized by Wall Street.

    If that’s true, then his former success was possibly largely due to being a voice for a concentration of wealth and power. That’s always an easy road.

  2. withywindle says:

    But whatever Summers’ general abrasiveness, it’s difficult to believe that he would have been pushed out the door if he hadn’t offended the PCniks. I find it difficult to believe that there aren’t a great many abrasive college presidents out there, who survive because their abrasions are relatively mundane, and don’t hit PC buttons. Ceteris paribus, as Summers ought to say, I think you have a difficult time proving that the culture war didn’t make the marginal difference between his continuing as Harvard Prez and being pushed out. (You may argue that the reverse is also difficult to prove; all I can offer is my intuitive sense that abrasive college presidents are far more common than unPC ones.)

    Now, you mention previous abrasions, but some of these also pushed PC buttons–i.e., telling Cornell West that hip-hop doesn’t cut it as evidence of Harvard-level intellect, and not being grief-stricken when West took a hike to Princeton. The grousing you mention about Summers generally followed the initial unhappiness about West, and had a certain manufactured air about them. The women-and-science comments weren’t just a handle for generalized anti-Summersism, but a handle for ideological anti-Summersism. Discontent with Summers was inflected with PC ideology from the get-go, and is difficult to disentangle.

    Here, as elsewhere, you have a tendency to imply (say outright?) that the existence of complications, details, local rivalries, personal tensions, somehow diminishes the importance of the grand ideological analysis. The point of ideology is that it does indeed unify a host of particulars toward a common goal, aligning all the local details within a common narrative. Ideology is so important, and so influential, precisely because it does operate through human clay, and is so remarkably effective despite the intractable material. And when you attack the culture warriors, the ideologues, for not having a sufficient grasp of the local, you are attacking a straw man: all intelligent analysts of ideology (which I assume exist on all partisan points on the spectrum) know that the local and the general interpenetrate. Yes, Summers is a local case, but the local case still follows the pattern of the larger ideological war.

    Now, I suppose you are trying to substitute an “academic culture” narrative for a “culture war” narrative. But I’m not sure it really is a story–it’s more like a statement of universal truths. Institutions are stodgy. It helps to be smooth. Prestigious institutions are particularly stodgy. One set of skills doesn’t always work in another. True, and you can say the same thing about Rudolph Giuliani’s experiences, or Donald Rumsfeld’s–or about so wide a variety of different people and situations, that the comment loses analytical acuity, and hovers near the banal. Compared with an “academic culture” argument, a “culture war” argument is in point of fact more local and more particular; more alive to the nuance of the time and place; distinguishing and explaining this event precisely from the host of possible parallels.

    A last comparison, based on my own field of research: Why did the British Civil Wars break out in 1637-42? There is a whole revisionist point of view that reduces the event one the one hand to contingent misfortune, and on the other hand to Charles I’s personality flaws. The riposte, to which I subscribe, is that to tear contingency and personality out of the ideological background, the predisposition of the Puritan/Parliamentarians toward revolt and dissatisfaction, the republican and proto-democratic ideals inflecting the early Stuart English and Puritan world, is somehow to miss a very great deal of the story. The ideology isn’t the whole story, but it is an essential part of the story. The fall of Larry Summers, likewise, I do not believe can be understood shorn of the ideological context–the culture war.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    I am definitely thinking about the episode with West, withywindle, but that’s a case where I would say it’s impossible to extricate the culture war subtext from the larger managerial problem. Let’s generously say that Summers was just seeking to argue that the small class of special professors of which West was one would be in the future expected to conform to some different standard. Fine. You don’t start off by hounding one man, then–you start off by talking about the general expectation. If on the other hand, what Summers had in mind was an attack on West’s scholarship or ideology, well, yes, that’s culture war stuff, but it means that he fired the first shot, and in precisely the manner that academic freedom is meant to protect–a college president shouldn’t be in the business of cleaning house of people that he disagrees with, or whose scholarship having been previously approved of he finds distasteful. That’s both bad management and an illegitimate move in the culture war context.

    It’s true that later on I suspect many people jumped on board the anti-Summers bandwagon around culture-war issues, and that it’s hard to disaggregate the whole affair, but I really think it’s a terrible mistake for conservative critics of the academy to make Summers one of their martyrs.

    I do not think that arguing that Summers made particular local mistakes at Harvard (and then connecting Harvard to some larger issues in the character of academic institutions) is a generic or non-local argument. I find that a pretty odd criticism, in fact. Both because we’re talking about some very specific errors in judgement made in a very specific context, and because academic institutions aren’t just generic institutions, and have very strong particular reasons for having an interlinked character from place to place. Academics have many translocal institutional experiences which standardize much of their everyday perspective on their profession (disciplines, conferences, peer review, and so on). The profession does have some important institutional continuities from place to place that are particular.

    So of course do other institutions. The military, for example. But those continuities are different from case to case. There are things we could say about how military actors tend to read and react to leadership that are true from place to place, just as it is true for academia–but those patterns are different in the two cases.

    Anyway, I’d agree you shouldn’t remove the culture war subtext, but I think that’s what it is: subtext. It’s not just that it doesn’t explain the local history which I think is primary in understanding the causation, it doesn’t even respond well to the larger institutional context that I think is important. You’re right in saying that’s a consistent view I hold: that to understand how academic cultures function (and disfunction), at least in the humanities and the social sciences, you need to understand first and foremost the institutional conservatism of academics, that the political ideologies could be readily substituted without affecting many of the deep issues to which some critics of academia are responding. I don’t think that’s a hypothetical, either. Roll the clock back thirty years and common orthodox views in many humanities and social science disciplines were markedly more conservative in political terms in the American context, but most of the hive-mindedness was the same or worse. Roll the clock forward twenty years and magically make academics more conservative, and I don’t think much of what is wrong with academic institutions will change much.

  4. withywindle says:

    1) One of the issues in the culture war is whether PC ideology has corrupted academia’s self-regulation sufficiently to allow charlatans waving the banner of identity politics snug berths within its confines; that existing standards were unevenly applied. If you do believe that, as Summers clearly sometimes did, it is not an illegitimate, but a necessary, move to focus on turfing out the charlatans.

    2) You mention academic freedom (which is not precisely at issue–it was not the politics of West’s work, but its quality, that attracted Summers’ attention), but I think it is more precise to say that the issue is one of academic self-regulation. Has academia so politicized its professional standards that outside interference, whether by an academic president, a legislature, or some other representative of society at large, is justified at this moment in time? But even to pose this question, to challenge academic self-regulation at all, requires a generalizing (negative) judgment about the nature of academia. To say that local institutions and conflicts are the point at issue resists the possibility of a generalizing question and judgment, and so, I think, is not a neutral response to the matter, but one that aligns you with the defenders of academic self-regulation.

    3) Let me try again on localism. The argument that the local significance of Harvard matters most is not one made in isolation, but as one of a host of local significance arguments–that the events of a particular institution, village, what have you, are best explained in terms of the particular institution, village, what have you. It is, by this point, a standard approach to history. But what this standardized approach does, in effect, is to disaggregate the world into loose atoms–all individual, but all no more or less like any other atom. And while this has virtues in explaining the individual atom, the patterning of chemical composition, texture, color–the relationship of one atom to another, their significant commonalities–allow you to distinguish the world as more than just endless atoms. This is, I suppose, a version of the old tree-and-forest argument; I would submit that if you focus too hard on the Harvard tree, you lose sight of the ideological forest.

    4) But the question is one of importance, perhaps, at heart. You said to begin with that “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.” First and foremost for whom? Perhaps for residents of Harvard–but what about for the rest of us? The local implications, precisely because they are local, are unlikely to affect us very much. The general implications–the ideological ones–are the ones most likely to resound through the world. The story that matters most for other academics, for citizens in general is the ideological one, because that will have the most impact on them; the local genealogy of the event is ultimately at best marginally relevant to the ideological effect. And indeed, when Minerva’s owl has flown, we will see that the slight ideological impact Summers’ resignation has on the nation at large may well have mattered more than the profound local effect it has on Harvard. It is certainly not out of court to make the argument.

    5) De Tocqueville argued well and strongly for the structural continuities between the ancien regime and revolutionary France. But to say the enduring structures matter more than their ideological content is missing part of the picture–perhaps the most important part.

    6) Local and institutional context somehow seems like the sociology of religion: important, but not centrally addressing the importance and the claims of religious belief.

    7) I’m not exactly sure we conservatives regard Summers as one of our martyrs, where “our” refers to political conservatives. He is an occasional co-belligerent, a canary in a coalmine, but obviously no political conservative. (Save, perhaps, in an academic context.) He does seem to be a martyr in the cause of larger civilizational values and institutions which we cherish–not least our ideals of academia as it ought to be–but we would prefer a world where liberals and conservatives could differ on many particulars, but be equally fervent in his defense.

  5. Doug says:

    5), 6) and 7) strike me as assertions, rather than arguments. And what, with some precision, is the “PC ideology” mentioned in 1)?

    Academic self-governance is a non-trivial problem. Over here in Germany, there are medieval traditions that persist in some forms of the university, and it has made reform in any coherent sense enormously difficult. Indeed, university reform has been on the political agenda in Germany for as long as I have been paying attention, nearly 20 years now. Improvements have come mostly at the margins.

    Timothy’s argument is that academic institutions are more conservative than other institutions in their arrangements, and I think that is correct. Companies, for example, are at least nominally subject to market discipline. If they lose too much money for too long, they cease to exist as institutions. Government agencies, while rarely eliminated entirely, also face budget discipline on a regular basis. Universities are tuned to much longer time frames; their governance models draw on medieval values; their ability to draw students changes extremely slowly; and, if the endowment is strong, their finances are extraordinarily stable.

    I just don’t see any support for this assertion “The story that matters most for other academics, for citizens in general is the ideological one, because that will have the most impact on them” from point 4).

    Inasmuch as Summers’ departure points to a larger lesson, it is what Timothy is saying: Any ambitious attempt to reform a large university (unless that institution is somehow in deep crisis) it is structurally very difficult, more difficult than a corporate turnaround or a reorganization of a public agency. If there is a mismatch between society’s present and future needs and what universities contribute, then fixing that mismatch is made harder by the structure of a university.

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    Pretty much what Doug says, withywindle: I think academic institutions are a particular sort of institution, and even beyond the local issues at Harvard, there is a global issue which is distinctive to them when it comes to pushing them in new directions.

    I also think that understanding what part of an issue is local IS important to everyone, that it has broad implications that we should all care about. I’m going to work up an entry about this later today, since I think you’re perfectly right in seeing a pattern in what I tend to claim about a wide range of issues. I’ll hint a bit at what I’m going to say by noting that it strikes me as very strange to claim that global, large-scale or universalizing frames of reference are the preferential frame of reference for conservatives. I think in many ways my inclinations are (perhaps appropriately) Burkean in their implicit conservatism; that I am suspicious of the forcible application of centralizing or universalizing frames of reference precisely because such frames of reference not only misunderstand causality in empirical terms but because their acceptance is what permits the oppressive superimposition of state or global power onto customary habitus (which is what ultimately accounts for the frequent long-term failure of such superimpositions as well).

  7. withywindle says:

    1) A relevant part of PC ideology would appear to be that it is tabu even to speculate upon the possibility that differing male and female achievement in science has something to do with biology, not with culture.

    2) What precise parts of stodgy academic self-governance dramatically affect the outside world? And indeed, is (American) academia as stodgy as all that? I note that since 1950 i) an enormous system of state, city, and community colleges and universities have expanded to house a much larger proportion of college professors and students; ii) exfoliating bureaucracies within individual colleges and bureaucracies, decreasingly manned by professors and increasingly manned by professional administrators, has taken over an extraordinary amount of academic institutions’ day to day management; iii) the success of the reform most dear to the heart of college administrators–the significant decrease of the proportion of tenured faculty, by the adroit use of graduate students, adjuncts, and temporary faculty; iv) the transformation of the student body, to incorporate a broad range of the middle and working classes, as well as racial minorities; v) the disappearance or drastic attenuation of the Jewish quota; vi) the extension of co-education to virtually all academic institutions; vii) the increase in the number of women to a significant majority of the student body; viii) the disappearance of academic efforts to act in loco parentis as regards student sexuality; ix) cutting-edge research in science, accompanied by a continuing fruitful and evolving co-operation with private industry and government; x) in the humanities and social sciences, an intertwining with government and private foundations to subsidize an extraordinary amount of research; xi) and even at a relatively unchanged place like Swarthmore, the increase in number of the student body from about 1,000 to approaching 1,500 in the last few decades implies considerable institutional flexibility. I would submit that these are quite extraordinary changes, and evidence of a certain dynamism in academic institutions. Perhaps academia is still “relatively conservative,” compared with the American private sector, but perhaps that statement means less if both are considered to be dynamos of change.

    3) I’m not sure you’re reading Burke properly. Burke recognized the importance of the local, but he also recognized the existence of France and England, and distinguished the behavior of so many millions of men and hundreds of villages as French, and the behavior of so many others as English. His arguments for the local and the particular were not atomizing: he recognized collectivities and abstractions of significant importance–the Established Church, Catholics, Parliament, India, Ireland, America, etc. Consider: “Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not a member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament.” Admittedly a quote torn out of context, a brief selection, but I think indicative of something more than unabstracted localism in his thought. Indeed, Burkean argument against universal reductionism depends upon the recognition of particular beliefs and institutions that unite people–the mid-sized unities that ward against both atomization and universalism. (Incidentally, what you call a “forcible application of centralizing or universalizing frames of reference” may be no more than a recognition of reality. Cf, E. P. Thompson, _The Making of the English Working Class_–“the working class” can be an unreal abstraction, but it can also be a recognition of a forged and real unity.) You may find it paradoxical, but I find your inclination to localize to be one the one hand a universalizing impulse, and on the other hand an atomizing impulse that goes hand in hand with universalism.

    4) And of course, just because I’m conservative, doesn’t mean I genuflect to Burke. My own allegiances are also to a rather older humanist and republican conception of virtue, politically inflected, which does not entirely coincide with Edmund’s beliefs. I take political narrative–indeed, narrative generally–to be a complement to citizenship in a secular republic, and engagement in political narrative a civic duty. Your resistance to political narrative, and to narrative in general, is a useful corrective to overly reductionist and simple-mindedly ideological political visions; but in isolation, and raised to a commanding principle, I fear it undercuts the political vision necessary for a citizen.

  8. Doug says:

    If it hasn’t crossed your screen yet, the Slate piece is worth reading, and is written by someone who has actually done some legwork:

    “If anything, Summers was forced out of Harvard because he behaved so boorishly that he provided a bottomless supply of ammunition to his enemies, both the ideologues and the doctrine-free. Sometimes it’s just not a good idea to say “A is right and B is wrong”—for example, when you’re talking to B’s chief proponent.

    “To be fair, it’s no easy matter to take over an immensely self-regarding institution that needs serious renovation. Summers’ predecessor, the amiable and ruminative Neil Rudenstine, had extricated himself from this dilemma by profusely thanking everyone in sight and taking tough issues under advisement for the duration. Summers was hired to kick some Harvard butt, whether in regard to the archaic system known as “every tub on its own bottom,” which granted almost total independence to the various graduate schools, or to the plummeting standard of new hires at the Law School. “We didn’t think we were hiring Dag Hammarskjold,” as one corporation member told me.

    “And at first, Summers looked like an inspired choice. Besides being brilliant even by the Harvard standard of brilliance, he was willing to make tough decisions, and he was fundamentally forward-looking. He pointed out, for example, that while it was socially unacceptable at a great university to admit that one hadn’t read a play by Shakespeare, you could safely joke about not knowing the difference between a gene and a chromosome. ” …

    “But Summers never came to grips with, or perhaps recognized, the special problem of the supremely self-regarding culture.”

  9. withywindle says:

    Doesn’t really say anything new. Summers is abrasive; details follow. But if abrasion matters, why weren’t there uniform levels of discontent across the different faculties? Arts and Sciences burst into flames as none of the other faculties did–and so far as I can tell, Summers would not have resigned if he had not particularly lost control of Arts and Sciences–what makes the margin of difference? I submit that the evidence is that a far more ideologically commmitted Arts and Science faculty took particular offense at his breaking of taboos; that ideology made the crucial difference between grumbling dislike and open rebellion. It would seem to me that a “personal abrasion” hypothesis must substantiate that Summers’ behaved more personally abrasively to the members of the Arts and Sciences faculty, independent of ideology, to explain their particular rebellion. It must also explain away numerous statements of ideological dislike of Summers, explicitly connected to the no-confidence vote in the Arts and Sciences.

    I would also submit that the matter allows for some prediction. I predict, because ideology is the true tripwire, that the next major reformer at Harvard will concentrate entirely on institutional reform, and break no PC taboos. He will also be fairly successful at pushing through institutional reform. This, I think, will provide considerable evidence that the true “stickiness” at Harvard is not institutional, but ideological; that it is easier to change the institution than the beliefs. If the next major reform is to broach PC taboos successfully, but not to address institutional reform, I will take that as providing considerable evidence for the reverse.

  10. withywindle says:

    This post, incidentally, provides support for the idea that Summers was tackling the Arts and Sciences crowd’s interests more than the other faculties’, independent of ideology:

    But if it cuts against an ideological argument, I think it also cuts against a “personal boorishness” argument–simply a matter of cui bono. And even if I were to accept that this accounts for all the difference between Arts and Science and the rest of the faculties–and I’m not sure I really believe that a majority of the Arts and Science faculties cares deeply about this issue of financial control and administration–this still leaves ideology as the crucial rhetoric by which the malcontents transformed their discontents into an argument more plausible to a sufficient number of the trustees, other faculty members, etc., who did not share their particular interest in Arts and Science financial turf.

  11. Timothy Burke says:

    I think it’s right to note that Summers’ reforms (both the ones with implications for culture-war issues and those that did not have such implications) hit harder at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, both because the FAS is the redoubt of liberal-left ideas and because some of his proposed reforms unsettle them more.

    But that’s also because Summers’ critique of “tubs on their own bottoms” was pretty well derailed early by his struggles on other fronts. He never had a chance to get in the way of the other schools at Harvard as he originally implied he might. There is probably a little of the “let’s you and him fight” in the attitude of the professional schools towards the FAS-Summers conflict.

    The “abrasion” argument, in my mind, applies more to Summers’ unsuccessful approaches to individual faculty and to the loss of possible allies even within FAS due to rubbing them the wrong way. Now one might note that academics are considerably easier to “rub the wrong way” than many other professionals due to the fact that the institution of academia tends to cosset outsized egos to an extraordinary degree, and that would be fair enough. But if you’re appointed the head of an academic institution, it’s not a bad idea to at least partially adapt to the culture of the locals.

    Still working on the meta-reply to withywindle’s concerns. It’s a very interesting general problem, and I think he’s accurately identified a point of significant contradiction and tension in my typical approach to many issues.

  12. evie says:

    I read the other day a very very long expose of Harvard’s involvement in trying to reform the Russian economy post-Soviet Union, in which Larry Summers did not come off well:

    I wonder if he was less successful at “Wall Street” than we were lead to believe?

  13. joeo says:

    Summers conflict with West points out the problem with centralized control of the university. What does Summers know about Black Studies? Or, about any of the other disiplines he wanted to control? Economics and the hard sciences are good, but not everything is economics and the hard sciences.

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