Summers Postmortem, Beyond Cambridge

What does demise of his Harvard presidency suggest about academic leadership, faculty power and women in science?
February 22, 2006

Lawrence H. Summers is a great Rorschach test for experts on the American college presidency. Some look at him and see a textbook example of why trustees need to pay attention to what professors think. Others think he's a textbook example that faculty members have too much say in what goes on at their campuses.

Some think his biggest legacy in higher education will be unprecedented national discussion of women in science -- an issue on which he didn't intend to set off a public debate. Others think the collapse of his presidency may scare boards from hiring presidents who want to speak out on any controversial issues. And still others think that the lesson of the Summers debacle is that boards should give a Rorschach test (or some test of personality) to would-be presidents to make sure brilliance is matched by the ability to get along with others.

Whatever you think of him, Larry Summers was Topic A in academe Tuesday, as he announced that he was leaving the presidency of Harvard at the end of the current academic year. In five years at Harvard, Summers had plenty of successes, including a notable expansion of undergraduate student aid and major progress on planning the university's expansion into nearby Allston, which will allow for major new programs in the sciences, the arts and other fields.

From early in his tenure, Summers spoke out on issues, winning him fans and critics, depending on the topic: grade inflation (against), patriotism (for), more science in undergraduate education (for), and so forth. Along the way, he built up more and more critics as people in various fields (black studies and the humanities generally) felt that their work wasn't held in his high regard. And then a year ago, he set off an international furor with his comments about women and science. While many Harvard watchers say that he ultimately lost faculty support over a wide range of issues, it was that talk that opened the floodgates of criticism.

With professors in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences poised for another vote criticizing his leadership next week, his support on the Harvard Corporation -- the university's governing body -- eroded. And he apparently couldn't survive in office, despite a board that had stuck by him through earlier controversies and strong backing from many Harvard students, some professional school professors, and national conservative groups that have portrayed him as a martyr to political correctness.

In his resignation letter, Summers said that he had "reluctantly concluded that the rifts between me and segments of the arts and sciences faculty make it infeasible for me to advance the agenda of renewal that I see as crucial to Harvard's future." In his letter, Summers noted that he might have pushed his agenda in "wiser or more respectful ways." (After a sabbatical, Summers will join the economics faculty at Harvard; Derek Bok, Harvard's president from 1971-1991, will becoming interim president July 1.)

While Harvard regroups, the question for many in higher education is what influence the Summers years will have on the rest of academe. Many experts see his tenure and departure as potentially significant far beyond Cambridge -- although not necessarily in the ways Larry Summers might prefer.

"The first lesson that's loud and clear here is that the faculty is still in charge -- and that's absolutely going to be a message that boards are going to hear, and it's going to have an impact," said Dennis M. Barden, head of the education practice of Witt/Kiefer, an executive search firm. "Boards and presidents cannot simply mandate change and expect it to happen," he said.

Nancy Martin, who has 30 years of higher education search experience, currently with J. Robert Scott, said she thought the Summers experience presented "a historic opportunity" for higher education. She said that she was struck last weekend reading newspaper articles that members of the Harvard Corporation were calling professors for their input about Summers. "They weren't doing that before," she said.

Harvard's board isn't the only one that needs to pay more attention to "the heart of the institution, which is the faculty," Martin said. A "chasm" has developed between boards and faculties, she said, and Harvard could inspire people to "raise the quality of discourse" in a way that would result in better governed institutions.

People interviewed generally thought it would be a good thing for trustees to pay more attention to faculty members, but some doubted that it would happen -- at least broadly. John Thelin, a professor at the University of Kentucky and author of A History of American Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004) said that the tensions at Harvard would be a warning to boards at places "where faculty values are strong and central to the institution." But with fewer tenure-track faculty members in "an era of strong boards and presidents," he said he worried that many trustees wouldn't necessarily rush to renew the principles of shared governance.

In the Summers case, he noted, the Harvard president was ousted only after incident after incident in which various constituencies were offended and he had created "a collective will" against his leadership.

One prominent search consultant who asked not to be identified said that the main impact of Summers may be to encourage boards hiring presidents to move past impressive résumés. Too many trustees, this consultant said, get too excited about "the position a person has held" or how impressive a person may be one on one, without focusing enough on "qualities of character and personality."

Barden agreed. "This was ultimately about his ability to communicate, to galvanize people around ideas," he said. "It's entirely possible that history will judge that everything Summers did was right -- and that he did everything in the wrong way."

Trustees historically haven't always paid attention to these issues related to how someone will carry out an agenda, Barden said. "From this point forward, every board will pay attention."

Several search consultants said that they thought the Harvard experience would be good for future searches. But some suggested that it could have a complicating impact on two of the top searches going on now: for the presidencies of the University of Chicago and the California Institute of Technology. If leading candidates for those jobs have the kinds of Harvard connections that might make them viable candidates for that institution's presidency, they might opt to take their chances there -- and hold off on putting their names forward elsewhere.

To many observers of higher education, Summers stood out for his willingness to speak out on tough issues -- and to take stands that might offend many on campus. "I think that Larry Summers was hired with the expressed interest of taking on some of the p.c. orthodoxies of the day," said Anne D. Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. She said that Summers spoke out for numerous causes that are "central to quality in higher education" and that it was "deeply disturbing" to see him forced out.

Neal said the Harvard president's big mistake was when he apologized for his comments on women and science -- something he did repeatedly in an attempt to calm dissent. "There was no reason to apologize," Neal said, and his critics then saw that they could go after him.

Several college presidents whose politics are not notably conservative agreed that Summers was punished for his views -- and said that they worried about the message that sent to other presidents. "Summers as an individual may have been too strong-minded, too clear, and too disrespectful of the Harvard elite to survive," said one president. "One thing is sure, and that is that the academic elite do not tolerate dissent that deviates from well known and narrowly defined boundaries, and the academic elite in particular does not tolerate dissent that carries with it the threat of implementation."

Another president -- who like all the presidents interviewed for this article wanted their names kept out of it -- said that the downfall of Summers struck her as "political correctness to the nth degree." She said that she "wasn't offended" by the questions Summers raised -- even those about women and science -- even when she didn't agree with his conclusions. "It's too bad presidents have to be so circumspect these days," she said. "Everyone laments that presidents can't use the bully pulpit, but here's one that did."

The president of a leading research university, however, said that while he did not believe for a minute that Summers is a sexist, he thought the lesson of Summers wasn't to avoid speaking out, but to avoid being "too direct and abrasive." Presidents may prefer to think that they don't have to be pay attention to different campus groups, this president said, but they do.

"These are jobs in which you have to be a politician and a diplomat, and work with your various constituencies and be careful about what you say -- that's a price of the job in my view," he said. "You have to accept that. These are very difficult management jobs, with many constituencies, each of which thinks they run the place."

The president added that it's important to understand that faculty members expect to be treated with respect and to have their independence upheld. At the same time, he said, "there's obviously a huge tension for all of us in these roles of how you get things done."

Arthur Padilla, author of Portraits in Leadership: Six Extraordinary University Presidents (Praeger, 2005) and a professor of business management at North Carolina State University, said that he believed presidents who want to speak out need to take a page out of the books of the legendary presidents who did so in earlier generations -- people like the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh of the University of Notre Dame or Bill Friday of the University of North Carolina. While positions they took on issues like integration of academic freedom may not seem controversial today, they were hugely controversial when these presidents were speaking out, and they managed to do so without being accused of being rude.

"It's how you speak out," Padilla said, adding that speaking strongly doesn't require "being combative." It would be unfortunate for higher education, Padilla said, if presidents look at Summers and decide not to speak out. "Universities would then go undescribed and undefended."

In the end, Summers may be best known for his statements about women and science. Most Harvard-watchers say that had Summers only messed up there, he would not have been forced out. But however much Cambridge residents may be aware of all of the full Summers drama, it was that one talk that prompted headlines literally around the world and that led to Summers's name being one that could prompt hissing at scholarly meetings.

And in this sense, the collapse of the Summers presidency may send an important message to higher education. "The biggest message is that people in leadership positions need to be informed about these issues," said J. Lynn Zimmerman, a biologist who is vice provost at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, and who has helped that institution become known nationally for its success in recruiting women to science departments.

Presidents have learned from watching Summers make ill-informed statements "and get challenged about the notions he put forward," Zimmerman said.

Before Summers spoke, many people who care deeply about diversifying the science talent pool were "complacent," she said. But the anger he sparked has been enormously productive in reminding people that "we're not done with this." Thanks to Summers, Zimmerman said, "these issues are center stage."

Claire Van Ummersen, director of the American Council on Education’s Office of Women in Higher Education, said that even if Summers did not lose his job over the issue of gender equity, the outrage over his original comments "sends a message that our institutions have to be dealing with issues of diversity."

Some scholars of women in higher education are ambivalent about all the public attention Summers has drawn to issues of women and science -- at least when viewed in the context of the other messages Americans are hearing.

Linda Eisenmann, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at John Carroll University, is a historian of American education and the author of Higher Education for Women in Postwar America, 1945-65 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006). Eisenmann said that the uproar over the Summers's analysis of women and science was notable in part because so many people noticed. "Women's role in higher education has just not been front page news over time," Eisenmann said.

Eisenmann thought it was great that so many people paid attention to the issue. But she cautioned that the public still had much to learn. People paid more attention to the ideas of Summers than to the ideas of Betty Friedan, Eisenmann said, noting that the feminist thinker who recently died had devoted considerable attention (ignored by her obituary writers) in The Feminine Mystique to the centrality of education for women.

As an example of how disjointed debates over gender and education can be, Eisenmann noted that -- while everyone was denouncing Summers -- many educators and public commentators were also discovering that women outnumbered men in higher education enrollments and were declaring this to be "a problem." Added Eisenmann: "It really concerns me as a historian that this would be seen as a problem."

Still, she said she hoped the Summers discussions would eventually lead to the right focus on women and education. And for that goal, having the issue raised by a Harvard president may have been ideal.

Van Ummersen said that there are institutions that are more influential than Harvard with regard to helping female faculty members. But there is a reality, she said: "Anything that happens at Harvard makes you take notice."


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top